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DemX – Promoting Democracy Through Good Digital Design

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
August 12, 2019

Recently, I have seen a lot of traffic on federal government email lists about customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX). When I first became a Presidential Management Fellow in 1997, the commercial Internet was still a wild frontier of digital design. Amazon was just another online bookseller, and Alta Vista was the preferred search engine to that upstart, Google. There was much speculation and folklore on what made an excellent website.

I was lucky to be part of the Reinventing Government movement lead by Vice-President Gore. The idea was to create government services where, “The plumbing was invisible,” and services flowed automatically to citizens like they were shopping at a convenience store. Donald Kettl, a noted public administration, called this model vending machine government. You can still see some of the vending machine government thinking today in the design of government websites and mobile apps.

Watching the Reinventing Government movement take place during the rise of the commercial Internet was a fascinating time. Government websites were heavily influenced by how commercial websites were being built. Between 1993 and 2000, organizations were running millions of experiments to determine what made a site clickable and sticky, (“Keeping eyeballs on the site”). UX and CX grew up in this time.

When I temporarily left the federal government in 1999, I worked for a dot-com startup and then a technology consulting firm before pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy and management. In the last twenty years since 1999, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter learned how to make users click, buy and interact on their respective platforms. Governments have taken note, and I have been in many government website design meetings where the agency wanted to create an experience where receiving government services was like buying from Amazon.

Coming back to the federal government in 2008 after a nearly ten-year absence felt like a century in Internet time. Government websites were more sophisticated with better UX and CX design. However, government websites lagged behind the private sector in customer experience. We remember when Silicon Valley digital gurus were called in to rescue Healthcare.Gov and then stayed around to form the U.S. Digital Service and 18F. A big push by the Office of Management and Budget concerns the citizen’s experience when dealing with government agencies.

But, are the lessons of the private sector’s CX and UX appropriate for government websites and mobile apps?

DemX – Democratic Experience

In the last few years, we have seen how manipulative CX and UX can be in encouraging consumers to buy products they don’t need or use online services that are harmful. We have seen the rise of fake news and how online communities can encourage extremism and violence. Governments are trying to regulate abusive CX and UX; government webmasters are using CX and UX to promote citizen participation.

My concern is that government websites and interactions with the public are much more different and profound. Amazon and the rest of the commercial Internet exist only to sell me things. I am only a customer to commercial Internet companies. And a victim to the fake news and extremist online communities.

Democratic governments and their citizens have a deeper relationship. Citizens rely on governments to establish and promote democracy. Governments rely on citizens to maintain democracy. Preserving and promoting democracy is why I am calling for another way of designing government websites:  DemX – Democratic Experience.

The tenets of DemX are to strengthen the bonds between the governments and their citizens, encourage citizenship behavior in communities and promote democratic ideals. Instead of seeing government as a vending machine where tax dollars go in, and government services come out, DemX principles fulfill President Lincoln’s motto of, “Government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” Yes, DemX government websites and mobile apps will still deliver government services.

But, delivering government services is only the beginning of DemX. DemX government websites and mobile apps will remind citizens of their roles and responsibilities in a democratic government; responsibilities such as being an informed voter and being prepared for natural disasters and volunteering in the community to help fellow citizens.

These are not unobtainable goals. There are many examples of local, state and national websites and mobile apps where citizens have worked with each other to volunteer their time and resources for the community. Think of how much of an impact these good citizen websites would have if they could harness the power of Amazon, Facebook or Google’s level of expertise with UX and CX.

At the heart of UX and CX is motivating behavior change so the user performs a preferred action. With abusive UX and CX, the motivation may be out of fear or addictive behavior. Why not harness the power of UX and CX to promote beneficial, democratic practices? That is the promise of DemX.


Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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