Written by: Cecilia Muñoz is the vice president of Public Interest Technology and Local Initiatives at New America and formerly served as the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. Nathan Ohle is the executive director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and formerly served on the White House Rural Council.
The worlds of technology and policy seem to be on something of a collision course: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook vs. Congress, AirBnb vs. looming state hotel regulations, Uber vs. New York City’s minimum wage standards for cab drivers.
To be sure, these technologies are developing rapidly, and as they grow, it is becoming more clear that policymakers should be engaging in the challenging work of ensuring that they serve the public well. But it’s not inevitable that this process has to be adversarial. It is also true that technology and policy are interconnected, and can benefit one another.
We have both been policymakers ourselves, and we would be the first to admit that the results too frequently don’t do enough to meet people’s needs. Part of the problem is that we make policy today much the same way we did a century ago: in small groups, without nearly enough connection to the people who are affected, or the up-to-date tools required to measure results.
Here’s where the tech industry can help — every day, they use tools that could radically improve the process of making policy.
The tech industry thrives on providing society with new tools that we then struggle to live without. It does so by creating and evolving innovative problem-solving tactics to ensure that the products they make are effective and responsive to end users. Technologists, including user experience designers, computer scientists, and product managers, care deeply about how their products look and feel. They aren’t afraid to make imperfect first versions, test them in batches, find the flaws, and iterate with new ideas. The process for creating new tech products is agile and collaborative — the exact opposite of the way most policy is made.
But how to bring the tools of technology to policy tables in places like Washington?
We were determined to find out, so we recently experimented with iterative problem solving tactics to create better outcomes for the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill, which reappears every five years to allocate money and create programming for rural communities was the perfect place to start simply because it seemed unlikely. The narrative around the latest Farm Bill was that it would be evolutionary, not revolutionary, potentially stifling innovative ideas.
Most people don’t recognize rural America as a place of innovation and technology. The first thought that probably comes to mind is agriculture — even though that sector makes up only 6% of the rural economy. But as broadband expands in rural areas and hunger for the digital economy comes along with it, it’s the perfect place to try out experimental policies.
So we gathered a coalition of rural community advocates, nonprofit leaders and technologists to try out new methods of policy creation. The technologists led the group through a typical tech design process, starting with the creation of common rural user personas— people who are often juggling many responsibilities, facing diminishing job prospects and have a hard time accessing capital. Then the group created a hierarchy of needs specific to rural communities. What’s fundamental? Clean water, electric grids, roads. What’s important? Schools, hospitals, grocery stores. What gets people to feel at home? Green spaces, local news, movie theaters. And finally, what attracts new people? Microbreweries, co-working spaces and access to capital.
Once they understood what makes a thriving rural community, the group could then outline the most common barriers for rural areas that want to move from fundamental to attractive living.
This design process assured that users — in this case people in rural areas — were at the center of discussion the entire time, which is not the typical outline for drafting policy. Technologists were fundamental in guiding policymakers through these steps, because they’re trained to amplify the voices of end users. They design products already thinking about the journey that a user will take from start to finish. They look for pitfalls. They prepare for every possible way that a user could break a system. They don’t get stuck on ideas, either. When they hear feedback from users that points to areas for improvement, they’re willing to take risks and ideate. So when they helped a group with the policy creation process, they brought that same spirit.
In the end, the technologists posed three questions: Who makes up a rural community and what kind of capital do they need? What infrastructure is important to rural communities? What does an “innovative” community look like? The group’s answer came in the form of a new program for rural communities that establishes venture capital funds to encourage rural entrepreneurs, co-working spaces in low-income rural areas and digital skills training centers.
The policymakers took over from there, as they understood that bold ideas like this are often left on the cutting room floor during the passage of giant legislation like the Farm Bill. Unlike the tech industry, which can implement changes almost instantaneously, legislative changes require a robust coalition of organizations advocating for them together — which is usually a difficult feat with competing organizational priorities. But because the design process they engaged in together was user-centered, they were able to clearly see the benefits of a new innovation program for all rural community members.
Because of this process and the advocacy that followed it, the Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) grant program was signed into law as a part of the Farm Bill in December, allowing rural communities to revitalize their economies with innovative opportunities.
So while Washington may not look anything like the open office plans and post-it laden walls of Silicon Valley startups, this example shows that it can still use their tactics. Doing so results in better policy that more accurately represents the people it’s intended to serve. If this process can work on the Farm Bill, it’s high time we start implementing it for other policy areas as well.