Democracy and Service Design

With the craziness of the Iowa caucuses bearing down on us today I thought I’d explore a few parallels between the elections and service design that have been on my mind.

The process of selecting presidential candidates for the major political parties here in the United States inspires a fair amount of discontent across the board. Very few people outside of Des Moines seem to think it’s a good idea for Iowa to wield so much influence on the nomination and this fall several states tried to move their primaries forward in a failed attempt to compete. It lead to a pointless game of leapfrog between South Carolina, Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa.

Most political observers seem resigned to a nominating system that looks increasingly antiquated in an age of 24-hour news, political blogs and YouTube. We’ve reified Iowa’s influence but the Des Moines Register shows how that power developed as an unintended consequence of the revised 1968 election calendar. It isn’t inevitable. No one can seem to come up with a better system that all the states can agree on, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I think it’s a good example of a wicked design problem.

As for the Iowa caucuses, they may be much-maligned but I think they’re an amazing example of interaction design. The Register has an information graphic that explains how they work. There’s something remarkably tangible about the process of forming coalitions and persuading others to come over to your side. Literally. Voting with your feet seems overwhelmingly engaging compared to paper ballots, and from an experience design perspective it’s a home run.

I’ve read a lot of objection to the disenfranchisement that results from having such a time-consuming and arduous process that requires people to be physically present, and to vote publicly, but I think the benefits are compelling:

To many Iowans, the caucuses are a civic treasure, passed down from the farmers who introduced them nearly two centuries ago as a way of organizing themselves politically. In presidential election campaigns increasingly dominated by sound bites and slick advertisements, the caucuses promote in-depth discussion of issues and earnest exchanges among neighbors. Because the caucus rules are more onerous than those of regular elections, the meetings tend to attract passionate, well-informed voters.

Because the Iowa caucuses are so demanding, and more than a little arcane, the turn-out-the-vote operation for each candidate is critical. The general sentiment seems to be that the campaigns are practically bribing voters with inducements, but in any other context producing a DVD overview explaining how the caucuses work, offering free baby sitting so people can participate in the caucuses, and distributing hundreds of snow shovels to dig caucus-goers’ cars out of an unpredictable Iowa winter would be considered a service design coup.

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