What Would Human-Centric Design for Knowledge Sharing Between Governments Look Like?

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By Nathaniel Heller — February 11, 2014. 

In the open government and transparency space, there’s a never-ending thirst for “knowledge sharing” – particularly between governments. If only smart government reformers in County X knew what great stuff their counterparts in Country Y had come up with, goes the theory, we could quickly scale up successful interventions and “fix” government processes quickly and efficiently. Thus were a thousand “marketplace” and “portal” ships launched, all in the name of cataloguing, tagging, and making various bits of wisdom for opening up government searchable (feel free to replace “open government” with your vertical of choice).

Here at Global Integrity we’ve bought into the logic model for many years. We’ve served on advisory committees to various online portals designed to provide government experts with knowledge at their finger tips. In recent years we tried to conceptualize and run the now-defunct Open Government Partnership Networking Mechanism, designed to link open government reformers with counterparts in civil society as well as the public and private sectors to share lessons learned and insights. In that experience, we learned the hard way what most (if not all) of these efforts had previously come to appreciate: they often don’t work. No one likes to talk much about this (after all, who doesn’t love south-to-south knowledge sharing as a mantra), but it’s time we unpacked why knowledge sharing between governments might be so especially hard and what we might do to make it easier.

Cues from Human-Centric Design

My own hypothesis for many of these struggles is that they fail to take into account how the human beings inside of government operate, day to day, and what their incentives, fears, and motivations are. Instead, we operate as a hammer (a web portal, a marketplace of ideas) in search of a nail to smash rather than asking, “do you really need a hammer? Maybe a screwdriver instead?”

Put another way, we collectively fail to embrace at least the basics of human-centric design and instead foist top-down solutions on beneficiaries who’ve never asked for our wisdom, never mind enunciated their actual problems. Little wonder that so many knowledge platforms go unused with little discernible return on investment.

So what do we know about government reformers and what makes them tick that might inform better designed knowledge sharing interventions? Based on my own experience in government as well as Global Integrity’s decade-plus experience assessing and engaging with hundreds of governments around the world, here’s my short list:

  • Governments (and all large bureaucracies for that matter) are naturally inward focused rather than outward looking. I spent three years working at the U.S. Department of State and I still have vivid memories of the few times that someone who worked outside of the US government appeared in my office suite for a meeting; it was that weird and uncommon. Bureaucracies talk to and fight with themselves more than they talk to and fight with people outside of the machinery. Piercing that membrane is difficult. This leads to a second basic observation…
  • It’s actually really hard for government colleagues to engage with outsiders, particularly on someone else’s home turf. They have to leave heavily-guarded buildings, may have trouble accessing email from outside of said buildings, and are warned at every turn from disclosing too much sensitive information to the public. This helps to explain why so many meetings with government interlocutors occur inside of those buildings rather than outside of them. The buildings are zones that our government interlocutors perceive to be safe, where they are in control and can define the parameters of the conversation.
  • Bureaucracies thrive on information control. She who controls the pen controls the policy, while access to sensitive information imputes power and influence within large organizations. Jargon becomes code for weeding out interlopers undeserving of that sensitive information. There are important signals and cues that the language used within government communicates to us – if we’re willing to listen.

Towards a Human-Centric Design of Knowledge Sharing

Are there things we could do to better to design knowledge sharing between governments based on those (admittedly rudimentary) insights? I think so.

  1. We need to acknowledge the hill we are climbing. Getting a government interlocutor to join your Facebook Group is hard enough, given the cultural proclivities against operating outside the bureaucracy. Getting them to register a Yammer account or a unique ID on a web portal is often a bridge way, way too far. We need to make our asks simple, non-threatening, and familiar within the normal pattern and tempo customary to the bureaucracy in question. The more we can make our platforms/portals feel like they are part of the machinery rather than external to it, the better.
  2. We need to make the opportunities for engagement with outsiders non-threatening. While I don’t think it’s too much of an ask to schedule meetings outside of government buildings, we need to appreciate the anxiety associated with asking government interlocutors to step outside of their familiar space (whether physical or virtual, as in the above example). Are there ways we can embed our knowledge-sharing interventions into government processes and government terrain without forcing our friends to step outside of their comfort zone?
  3. We need to embrace the challenge of translating government-speak into NGO-speak, commercial-speak, or lay terminology. These dialects all carry with them norms and values that need to be sussed out and interrogated before we assume that my “information sharing platform” or “marketplace” means the same to everyone everywhere. Being attuned to the differences in language between stakeholders, and making efforts to aid in the translation between them, would do us well.

What else am I leaving out? And what else should we be focused on the next time we embark on another government-to-government knowledge sharing expedition? Sound off in the comments below.

Photo credit: Control Arms (Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Nathaniel Heller

Nathaniel is a founder of Global Integrity and previously served as Executive Director

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