FWD50 2020, which coincided with the U.S. Elections, lasted six days, and included five tracks. It was a huge undertaking, and while we touched on many themes, the overarching topic was resilient democracy. Could organizations and public institutions survive the tumultuous effects of political polarization, online falsehoods, pandemics, and more? And can digital transformation make our society more resilient?
We returned to this theme in 2021, when much of our content focused on trust. The only way public institutions will survive is if they have the support of the people they serve, so trust is fundamental. Much of any organized society is a consensual hallucination. Consider money: We collectively agree to use currency, which gives it value, and as a result, the monetary system becomes valuable.
All public institutions exist because we believe in them. We give them funding, and let them write laws, and pay for them to help others, and hand over our personal data, and more, because we trust that it will be for the greater good. We create them by believing in them, and will them into existence. Without trust, the hallucination vanishes, and with it the advantages of a shared society.
But trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. Vast swaths of society no longer trust in the results of elections, the benefits of social programs, the legitimacy of lawmakers, or the morality of the greater good. How do we fix this?
Following a career in tech and publishing, Mike Bracken co-founded the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), whose model was quickly adopted by governments worldwide. Mike’s most famous sentence is Strategy is delivery. That is, with all of the committees, prevarications, and processes in government, the best thing the digital service can do is deliver. Often.
Pia Andrews and I returned to this theme earlier in 2022 in a post entitled How might we grow trust and confidence in the public sector in the digital age. In it, we stated that things governments build must not just be trustworthy, but trust-creating.
The user must come away from an interaction with a sense of surprise. “I didn’t know it could be that easy,” we want them to say. “That was delightful, and I’m now reconsidering how hard I think that task is and how often I will do it.” We want them to feel smarter when they tell their friends about it: “I found this new tool on the government website and it almost feels like cheating.”
But even Bracken’s insight misses the point. There are plenty of solutions that deserve our trust, but languish or fall fallow. As any startup will tell you, delivery isn’t enough. We need adoption.
Adoption is the ultimate test. It means that you delivered, but also that people found the service, and were able to accomplish what they set out to do, and spread the word on your behalf. It means that you suggested other ways your department might help, even as they were completing that task. In the startup world, they’d call that sticky.
We seldom talk about adoption in government, and I think there are a couple of reasons why.
- First, because we assume that demand predates supply. The citizens, voters, and legislators want the service. They demand it from us. We implement it, and they’ll use it—because they’re the ones who wanted it.
- Second, because the service is mandatory. Users have to use it—to file their taxes, request their permits, access their benefits, and so on—so why worry about adoption? It’ll be 100%, and if it isn’t, we’ll fine people and lock them up.
But is that any way to build trust? The first reason assumes that what we delivered is what people wanted (which is seldom the case), and encourages activity over results. The second reason is downright hostile. And in both cases, we’ve lost an opportunity to delight a person, and learn from them, and iterate towards better and better services.
So for FWD50 in 2022, while we have a wide range of topics, speakers, and workshops, we’re weaving one thread throughout the conference: Strategy is adoption. That’s how we’ll restore trust and make democracy resilient once again.