Architects by nature are problem solvers. Give us a site, a problem, a program, and a budget and we go to work finding solutions. I often wonder why there are not more Architects in Public Service. Sure, you might find one on a town planning board, but you never hear about notable Architects running for Congress. And since I think that anything can be Designed to be better, why not a better Government? Let's explore some hypothetical concepts using some Design based thinking and see where we land.
In order to simplify things, let's imagine that our country is one big hotel with lots of residents. The hotel was built a couple of hundred years ago (give or take) and has had several additions put on over time. Currently, the hotel is pretty run down and in need of some upgrading. Now, don't get me wrong, the hotel still has some pretty luxurious suites, but the people who rent those rooms don't come out much and don't really care that the corridors and the lobby need work. In fact, they are pretty much against any renovations to the common areas if it means that the price of their suite will go up. We'll call these people the 'preferred guests' because they pay the most money per room and they typically get the best service.
The next part of our client base is the 'bargain shopper'. These are the people who shop all the web sites and want to pay the least amount of money to stay in our hotel. They want the place to have a nice fitness center and pool and they want a free breakfast included with their discount accommodations. In short, they don't want to spend one cent more than they have to and they are the most demanding guests you can have.
Lastly, we have the regular paying customer. These are the customers that make reservations, pay the market rate for the room, eat in the restaurants and respect the property. They would love to work their way up to 'preferred guest' but by following the rules, it takes longer. The paying customer is the best guest that the hotel has.
So the current management tells me that they want to fix up the public areas of the hotel to attract more Paying Customers. They are not concerned so much about the rooms because the Bargain Shoppers won't care so much and the Preferred Guests have the nicest rooms as it is. With respect to the Paying Customers, they want the public areas to be so nice that the Paying Customers don't stay in their rooms. They come out of their rooms and spend money in the restaurants or at the bar. In fact, they want the Paying Customers to be so happy with the amenities of the hotel that the Paying Customers insist on renting the hotel for big meetings and conferences. Lots of new Paying Customers will come to the hotel for the meetings and everyone will be eating and drinking and socializing in the renovated Hotel. Life will be great.
So I get the job to do the renovations and I start by putting together some schematic plans and estimates. Despite the fact that these are not final drawings, everyone starts to go nuts. From the cost of the light fixtures to the price of the carpets, management slashes the construction budget by 40%. The leather on the bar stools becomes vinyl with a faux leather grain. The original artwork in the lobby is changed to framed prints with non-reflective glass. And finally, the walls that were to be clad in wood panels become vinyl wallcovering. We have saved a fortune and management is happy. We issue the drawings and start getting bids on the work. The numbers come in close to budget and construction begins.
What happens next is the most curious part of the process. The management sees the work progressing and they think the renovations look cheap. They say the carpet doesn't feel luxurious (probably because we changed the specification from wool to nylon to save money) and the vinyl wallcovering looks institutional (duh, it's vinyl). Even though the decisions they are unhappy with are theirs, they blame the Architect. They start saying that the Design is flawed and must be changed. They want everything swapped out to the more expensive materials and they want the Architect to pay for it. Since the Architect's fee is minuscule compared to the cost of the project, I can't afford to give up any of my fee. My only hope is to appeal to the contractor for some charity. And so begins the juggling act between charity, contract work, and change orders. Eventually, the hotel will get done. It will look better than before, but will not be great, and the guests won't really care either way. They probably wouldn't have cared if the renovation didn't take place at all because none of the items on their 'wish list' got addressed anyway (can we get Wireless in the restaurant please?!)
So, can you figure out who's who in our story? The funny thing is that the above story is a totally real account of a job I did not too long ago. When I listen to all of the pandering and spin surrounding our political process, one thing is very clear to me. No one really cares about the guest. The guest is never at any construction meetings. The management and contractors both THINK that they are helping the guest, but really both are looking out for themselves.
So, the question remains, Can You Design a Better Government? The answer is Yes. But you need to cut out the Management and the Contractors and develop a dialogue directly with the Guest.
I remember one time, I was Designing an office space and the Client gave me the new seating plan of where everyone was to be located. As I was doing a survey of the floor, the workers in question were trying to get a peek at the plan. It was clear that they had not seen it or had any input in its creation. I set the plan down on a file cabinet so that I could take some measurements of ceiling heights and came back to find a small group surrounding the plan. Before I could take the plan back, comments started flying at me. In a matter of minutes, the staff on hand had proposed several re-organizations that were far more efficient and cost effective than what the management had come up with. I made a note of their suggestions and brought them up to my Client at our next meeting. When I suggested that perhaps we lose some of the copy rooms and add a networked printer in the open floor, he asked me why I would suggest that. I stated that some of the staff came to me and suggested it. To this, he replied, "If we were going to let them make decisions, I wouldn't need to manage this project."
"Exactly" I thought. And so goes the Political Machine.