Space for dissent

We need to create more space for dissent and contestation in the discourse around ‘design for government’ – otherwise we are in danger of straying into groupthink (and worse).

As part of my PhD, I’ve recently completed a literature review looking at research studying the phenomenon of ‘design for government’ – and I think we have a problem. With a few notable exceptions, there seems to be a single conversation going on – circulating through research, grey literature, blogs etc – and which goes like this: government is in trouble/ can’t do ‘x’/ must innovate/ reform/ transform/ be more efficient/ deal with complex problems > design can help with that > here’s how to do it. I’m paraphrasing somewhat, but there is a certain pattern that emerges, and a very instrumental way of talking about design (i.e. focused on what it achieves).

This is not a particularly critical discourse. Rather, almost everyone who says anything on the topic of design seems to be in the business of promoting it, more or less subtly – and there isn’t a great deal of clear water between academic research, and actual design promotion by the sector. What research there is seems to be preoccupied with explaining back to designers, public managers and policymakers what design for government is about and why there should be more of it. As a research community, it’s a very narrow set of questions we are asking and answering, repeatedly. And consequently, we’re not moving the conversation forward much beyond what the Design Council’s RED team said in the ‘Transformation Design’ manifesto that kicked it all off 11 years ago. All the major memes were there – in 2006.

This disciplining of how we talk about design in the context of government happens in practice too. You can quickly find yourself in the minority by asking awkward questions, or taking a different view – and I think this is suppressing some healthy debate. Certainly for me, disagreeing and biting my tongue has become something of an everyday experience: at work, or attending industry events and design research conferences, in reaction to hyperbole on social media – others broadcasting platitudes on twitter, or postulating on Medium. (If I see another primary-coloured slide with a five-word truism about users in helvetica font I might scream).

I hesitate to voice my criticism, because my sense is it either won’t be welcome, or worse – really heard or understood. And I know others have had similar tongue-biting experiences. A colleague recently spoke of fundamentally disagreeing with a fellow panellist at a public event celebrating service design, and feeling unable to express herself, because it would go against the ‘tone’ of the discussion (which she described as ‘women nodding and smiling and agreeing with each other’). A fellow academic recounted some highly questionable assertions made during the recent Service Design Network Global Conference (some of which I also spotted being regurgitated on twitter in a little echo chamber of design cheerleading), that yet went uncontested. As I write this, I’m having a conversation with another academic about how to present a critique of service design to a conference of service design practitioners and researchers without offending anyone.

This squeamishness about giving offence is a problem, because it creates a situation where there’s no comeback. In the absence of any clear source of authoritative knowledge or expertise (because who can really claim that much expertise in an emerging field), anyone who says anything loudly and confidently enough can present as an expert, unchallenged. This isn’t a healthy or helpful situation.

Surely this is a field that – both in development, and highly entangled with questions of politics, social ‘good’, governing etc – demands some healthy and spirited debate. What’s going on? Is everyone being terribly polite? Does everyone really agree? Are we all trying to curry favour with each other by nodding and clapping? Or is no-one thinking very hard about whether some of these assertions actually merit ‘applause’ or retweeting? I wonder if, having for so long campaigned to be taken seriously by government, there is a tacit agreement within the design community – practice and research – to not spoil it by bickering amongst ourselves in front of clients. Or perhaps design discourse, with its almost dogmatically optimistic rhetoric, simply doesn’t have a register with which to express uncertainty, misgivings, scepticism, etc. Whatever the reason, we seem to be creating a discourse space with little room for critical voices, and that needs to change, because we’re not learning anything new, and we are smothering criticality in practice. And criticality is an essential faculty in people who are in the business of proposing new possible futures.

From a design promotion point of view, job done. The single-track message has helped design practice elbow its way into government. It’s time to be a bit more critical about what we’re up to there.

1 Comment

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One response to “Space for dissent

  1. Jafar Baig

    Absence of healthy criticism and open discussions of fundamental concepts in order to avoid breaking the tone of ongoing discussions is a very real (but silent) and concerning issue in every feild. Only a part of the problem, but in a world that works on recommendations and publications, may be one has a lot at stake to open up.

    Nice post on conservatism and social pressures in academic discussions!

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