The Citizen Experience of Transparency Portals


CX, UX, Transparency, Open Data

I suppose being a former anthropologist I have an overdeveloped interest in classification and precise descriptions. The citizen experience (CX), the user experience (UX), transparency and open data all have some overlap but are different things. These four concepts intersect in a particular kind of portal. Government transparency portals have been around for some time. Most government transparency portals suffer from many of the same issues:
  • Organizationally driven rather than user driven design
  • Compartmentalized data presented in an opaque, hard to decipher narrative
  • Lack of adherence to modern design standards 
  • Lack of design pattern development, one has to relearn how to use different transparency portals
  • Lack of data normalization and provenance
I will walk through these issues after first cleaning up some of the mess regarding definitions and concepts that intersect with government transparency portals.

Open Government, Open Data

Some transparency data is open data but not all transparency data is open data or even data. Transparency sites have a different purpose than an open data portal. This is probably an arguable point and perhaps I am taking a prescriptive approach to how I view transparency in its relationship to open data.
As the open data movement unfolds there seems to be two basic philosophies toward open data: open access to information and knowledge per the Open Knowledge Foundation's philosophy; access to machine readable data that is reusable and in non-proprietary format per the Open Data Institute's philosophy.

These two philosophies have overlap and have their champions and detractors. The Sunlight Foundation supports open data for its transparency properties. A recent McKinsey report valued the American open data market at 3 trillion dollars, provided open government data intersected with private data. This report also stipulates the "liquidity" of data is an integral part to the development of this market value.
User Experience, Citizen Experience

The user experience has been discussed and nuanced for decades. Jakob Neilsen was one of the first usability engineers to apply usability heuristics to websites in 1994. The user experience and user experience designers have come far in the last two decades. What has emerged is a concept called design patterns. Design patterns are used by user interface designers to create a conventional work flow. Imagine if every eCommerce site had a different paradigm than the "shopping cart" experience we have today. Your ability to quickly move from site to site shopping on Cyber Monday would be frustrating.

Add this to the concept of the citizen experience. CX is different than UX. UX is concerned with your ability to complete a task and your willingness to complete a task on a website. CX goes beyond that. The CX satisfaction comes from a variety of factors that determine the citizen satisfaction with a government entity. This can involve an in person exchange or, as we are discussing here, an exchange with a government website. Most government websites, transparency portals included, tend to be organizationally driven rather than user or citizen driven.

Transparency Portals: The Data is in there...Somewhere..

This is a list of transparency portals in North Carolina. I happen to live in North Carolina. We have some of the better examples of transparency portals. The data is there but that is only part of the problem:
The User Experience lacks a Design Pattern

Open Book is a site that does attempt to be less cryptic than most. The "follow the money train" graphic unfortunately leads to pages like this Awarded Bids page listed by title. There are hundreds of awarded bids for this year alone and no way to filter by who was awarded how much and for what purpose. One could try searching by vendor but overall the user experience lacks several heuristic elements (such as state and recall).

The above only addresses the user experience of one site. If one looks at every transparency site in the state of North Carolina, one will find a variety of navigation and information architectures that require a relearning of how data is organized at each site. Every terms is organizationally driven, every category is based on knowing what each department within an organization does.

Now. This problem gets magnified when one looks at transparency portals from other jurisdictions. Watch dog groups and transparency organizations should also be faulted for not working harder on creating and working with governments on design patterns. The business of government is to govern. The business of organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, The John Locke Foundation, The Open Data Institute and the Open Knowledge Foundation should be more than just insisting the data is out there. These organizations should be pushing government and assisting government in doing a better job at reporting transparency in a way that speaks to citizens.

The Citizen Experience: High Costs and Low Returns

The bigger problem comes to light when one finds personally identifiable information (PII) leaking on one or more of these sites. This is not only an unsatisfying citizen experience but undermines the citizen trust in government systems. Security and the citizen experience does not end with reducing the potential of PII. Reducing PII can be done programatically using web services. Scrubbing data should be done at the source rather than at the site. Should a site be breached, hidden columns of redacted data would still be released.

Working toward a set of standards for transparency portals and using similar language would allow citizens to compare and analyze in a way that is not possible currently. This enhances the citizen satisfaction with their data gathering experience and an enhanced opinion of government in general. Here is a blog article with a similar view and take on the "User Centered Design" approach to government websites.

Aside from design enhancements and security upgrades transparency portals experience low levels of engagement and consume vast resources in terms of money and staff time. Third party vendors with transparency portal expertise is a low cost alternative to the high total cost of ownership of "DIY". It is the government's responsibility to make the citizen experience with data a positive informative one.

How do We Fix It?

This is never about technology. We have web services, we understand systems and cloud computing, we even have an idea of how to make design patterns work. The problem is a lack of willingness to engage. The City of Raleigh has a high engagement level for its size. Millions of data scrapes and hundreds of thousands of page views and several citizen engagement events has made Open Raleigh a very good investment.

Can this be repeated? Yes. Any government organization that is wiling to engage and think about how will citizens interact with this data can create a healthy vibrant transparency portal.
Engage not with just data stewards and your own organization but also with the people you serve. The journalists, think tanks, political pundits and citizens all have uses for this data. We can go even further by vetting the data being released through neutral rubrics on data standards from organizations like the Open Data Foundation.

A robust transparency site can become a destination site though engagement and thinking about the citizen experience.


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