Stop treating people like idiots: start connecting public service users to the tough decisions that shape them

One of the most common grumbles heard within the political and governmental classes is that the public doesn’t understand the need for compromise.

The argument goes something like this: left to themselves the public will vote for low tax and high public spending, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and collapse. The State of California is usually wheeled out as exhibit A here.

Assuming that this is even true, I find it hard to blame the public for a general lack of awareness about the compromises involved in running a functional government.

This is not because big budgets are complicated (although they are) but because most governments waste hundreds of thousands of opportunities a day to explain the nature of compromises. They waste them because they’re still thinking about the world from a paper-centric mindset.

Linking to explanations

My argument is this: key compromises or decisions should be linked to from the  points where people obtain a service, or at the points where they learn about one.   If my bins are only collected once a fortnight, the reason why should be one click away from the page that describes the collection times.

Currently, in order to obtain an explanation for why a service functions as it does,  I’d probably have to pick up the phone to my local councillor, or use this handy service to make a few FOI requests. In terms of effort and clicks, these explanations describing why a service is like it is are so far away from the service itself that they might as well be on Mars.

Here are some of the wasted opportunities to explain which I would like to see seized upon:

  • A “Why aren’t there more bin collections?” link on local government waste pages, linking through to an explanation about council budgets, what would have to be sacrificed to have more bin collections, and who made the decision to adopt the current compromise.
  • Updates by local governments on FixMyStreet that say “We’re not going to fix this problem because it wouldn’t be good value for money”, linking through to an appropriate analysis about money spent on street fixing, versus other things.
  • On the NHS’s ‘Choose and Book’ website, I’d like to see links saying “Why can’t I get an appointment sooner?” These would then be linked to data on NHS waiting lists, budget constraints and specific decisions that set the current availability.

Obviously cynics out there will say that governments don’t want people to know that they can’t solve all the world’s ills – and that they want to preserve a mystique of omnipotence, so that people will be miserably grateful to them for the bounty bestowed. In this model, governments don’t offer explanations lest citizens see them as merely mortal, and boot them out.

Now, I don’t know about you, but servile gratitude and illusions of infinite power doesn’t sound much like the current attitude to government from most people I know.  We live in politically disillusioned times where many people worry if the government can actually fix anything, never mind everything.

If ever there was a time to start routinely explaining to citizens that government is a process of ceaseless compromises it is now, in the hard times. There are plenty of those around the world right now.

I believe that citizens could be both more forgiving of governments, and more empowered to demand change if services were closely connected to explanations of why compromises have been made.  I think that the reason it hasn’t happened before isn’t really politics: it’s simply because it wouldn’t have been possible on paper. On paper you can’t link through to an animated narrative, or a set of votes, or a transcript of a key decision.  I think the main reason we don’t connect services with explanations is because governments haven’t really grokked the meaning of simple linking yet – not really.  I’m looking for the first government, national or local, willing to give it a shot.




  1. Agreed. Aside from the linking thing, much of what you’ve said above has been the work of Don Lenihan in Canada. If you haven’t already seen it, check out his new book, Rescuing Public Policy, and what he did when advising the government of New Brunswick. You might want to give a copy to Francis Maude at the next meeting of the Transparency Board.

    • Andrew – thanks for recommending Dr Lenihan, who I don’t know before.

      I’m afraid I’m not on the Transparency Board any more, so I won’t be giving anything to anyone.

      • Glad to be of use re: Don Lenihan. Sorry to hear you’re no longer on the Transparency Board. People who span the tech/policy/civil society boundary are valuable.

        And congratulations on the great new grant from Omidyar!

  2. I heartily agree.

    One surprising thing I found out about was that GPs are only allowed 10 minutes with a patient, and this is a governmental restriction (some surgeries it is 5 minutes!). They’ve asked for more but they aren’t allowed. And if they regularly run over that, it’s marked against them on their records. That’s rather a classic thing we blame them for, without knowing the background to that constraint.

    If we did know, we might help the doctors to pressure for more time (research shows 20 minutes helps achieve better outcomes).

  3. Nice idea, although could risk:

    “I’m sorry but we are unable to fix the pothole on your street as we spent the pothole budget creating this service to tell you that we can’t fix the pothole on your street.”

  4. Very nice idea. I suspect, however, that it would also lead to discovering that many decisions are NOT shaped by financial constrains (which people might accept) but ideology (which would infuriate them). Bins are a perfect example, the fortnightly collection of the landfill bin being motivated by green slime ideology more than finances (but maybe I am wrong and the council could explain that providing and collecting 4 different kinds of bins is actually cheaper… 🙂

    • But surely for anyone who found it infuriating, this would simply be a sign that perhaps they should make their views known to the government (in your example it’s local government, so it wouldn’t be quite such a daunting prospect). Bear in mind that not everyone would be of the same opinion on each point (reasonable person though you clearly are!)

      • My reply was a reply to Magdadh (in case that wasn’t clear! To me it looks like my response is showing as a response to the blog piece)

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