Design in Government

Complex Complex

Illustration by Lab team member Tim Vienckowski

The scale and complexity of the U.S. government (and I would guess almost all governments) is almost incomprehensible, sort of like trying to grasp the mass of Himalayans or the number of cells in our bodies; you know the amount is enumerable, but it doesn’t matter because even if you knew the number it would be so enormous that it wouldn’t have any meaning. In the course of my work, I’ve realized that this sense of enormity is not due to the number of people working in the government, but to the scale of government engagement. From pre-cradle (policies and laws governing neonatal care and parental leave) to post-grave (probate), each of us is involved with government and governance at every moment in our lives, whether it’s invisible to us or not.

The other issue with conceptualizing the government is that unlike profit-driven enterprises, the purpose of the government is far more complex than profit and loss. Very often, there are governmental policies and initiatives that either seem to do the same things but in slightly different contexts, a situation we identified in the Community Veterans Engagement Boards project and started to call "useful redundancies”, or even to conflict with each other. Taken at surface value, these situations can be frustrating, but analysis can reveal nuanced differences between the programs that appear to conflict, congruences between the projects that can be bundled and scaled, an interplay of balancing tensions between programs, or the utility of certain redundancies.

 Finally, to design effectively in government means designing for change. 1  It means creating flexible, sustainable designs at the scale of lifetimes and planning for elegant sunsets once those designs are no longer sustainable. This is a process that all organizations of all types struggle with, as very few creators or sustainers of programs plans for those programs to go away quickly2  or greets the prospect of laying that program to rest with particular joy.

These reasons outline why the designer’s role in government is incredibly expansive. Design-led research practices 3  mean that research will not simply set out to cut and reduce, nor will they necessarily result in the creation of yet another program to support. Design-led prototyping and iteration cycles mean that programs that need evolution can be gently reformed to be more effective, 4  instead of wholesale destroyed and rebuilt. And finally, design-led measures 5  can guide a complex organization to understanding their own complexity and the impact of their interventions with nuance and intelligence.

For these reasons, designers who wish to work in government and have impact must grow beyond the twentieth century understanding and practice of design into a more creative, more interdisciplinary, and more ready-to-lead space than ever before. That is the inflection point of design and government: the intersection of reality and intention, legacy and desired futures.

  1. For more on this, please see the Design for Change principle from the HCD Design Concept Guide (link to beta)
  2. I've also experienced the opposite end of this inclination to never sunset. When I was a designer in the fast-paced motion picture industry, we had a saying: "ABW: Always Be Wrapping". Because our projects were so brief and so intense, we would plan our exit (in industry lingo, our "wrap") literally while we were still prepping some of the shoot days! It's a great exercise to bring the learnings from that space into my current practice.
  3. For more on this, see the Design Thinking article.
  4. For more on this, please see the HCD Design Operations Guide
  5. For more on this see, the On Data