UX in Government: Why We Need to Stop Calling It “Citizen Experience”

How do your “customers” imagine the word citizenship? Credit: Citizenship Test, Streatham; https://www.flickr.com/photos/grassrootsgroundswell/

As a cultural anthropologist invested in public service, I’m pumped that User Experience professionals want to work to improve public program, service, and platform delivery. As anthropologists and UX professionals in industry and planning already know, the consequences of top-down projects that rely on minimal “public engagement” efforts range from inefficiency, to product failure, to (in the case of urban planning and urban development) actively harming underserved communities we claim we work for. I’m fully on board with UX’s role in the public sector, and am here to be an advocate for its unique role in more ethical governance with, rather than just for, communities. I just can’t understand choosing to call it “Citizen Experience.” Here’s why, and what I think we can call it instead.

1. Citizen is a loaded term

Posting this in the wake of Brexit, and during what seems like an especially xenophobic moment in U.S. politics as well — this one is probably obvious, but it sets the tone for the rest of the reasons I’m about to give. I know that the meaning of the word has evolved in context from “resident of a city” (I can hear my colleagues who work in rural programs now, whispering “urban biassss” into my ear) to a more general sense of active and knowing belonging (to a nation state, to a community, to the European Union, to the world, depending on the speaker). However, right now in public rhetoric, people use the word to distinguish state sanctioned, and formalized membership to political communities. I work in the U.S., and when someone asks if you’re a citizen, it means something very specific, and very unnerving. We’ve seen in the UK that English vs. UK vs. EU citizenship, likewise, are highly political and fraught questions.That brings me to #2.

2. We work for everyone

Do the projects you work with only serve formal citizens of your city, country, state? Is it only funded by folks who think of themselves as or who are registered by others as citizens of the governmental body you work for? I didn’t think so. We work to improve the parks, transportation systems, online systems, healthcare systems (and on, and on, and on) that serve all who move through our communities, even visitors. Citizen just doesn’t cut it. This is the same reason I dislike reading the phrase U.S. Citizens in population reports about transit use, for example. Is that what you mean — or do you mean U.S. residents? And if you’re sitting here thinking “wait, wait…I mean citizen in that ancient sense, in that political theory sense…so…this doesn’t really affect me or what I do” — Check out #3.

3. We truly want to be more inclusive.

Over time as we’ve become increasingly invested in community-based participatory work in government, we’ve also become more invested in better serving communities that have, historically, been denied their civil rights, or who continue to face struggles related to immigration reform, refugee status politics, etc . The word “citizen” is charged, and continuing to use it, for no more important reason that I can think of, is one way to erect a symbolic barrier between government and those communities. If CX is supposed to be about inclusion, let’s make our language more inclusive, too. I have noticed an emphasis, for example, on city, state, and federal parks trying to reach out to Latinx communities — are they really going to publicly use the phrase Citizen Experience for the UX or ethnographic research they can do to help them do that more authentically and efficiently? As my grandma would have said, “bless their hearts.” How do folks expect it to feel for some individuals to read about how important it is to “transform the citizen experience”? Who does that include? If you’re in the U.S., did you do some quality ethnographic fieldwork with communities whose citizenship has consistently been called into question as a prerequisite for civil rights before deciding “Citizen Experience” works and feels inclusive? Probably not. Furthermore, as individuals still dismantling continuing legacies of cultural racism post Civil Rights legislation can attest, expecting that if government uses the word citizen more inclusively, cultural and electoral politics will follow quickly behind is like expecting (here comes another grandma-ism, get ready) the tail to wag the dog. We can speak and write in ways that are respectful of legacies of marginalization, and we can do it now.

To be clear, I am not arguing that it might be nice to improve the phrase “Citizen Experience.” I am arguing that continuing to use it might actually be harmful to the work we want to do with communities who have felt underserved, or even slighted by public entities in the past. This isn’t a commentary about the important work already being done by trailblazers in the field, or on the Centre for Citizen Experience. It’s just an insistence that when we speak — not in brands, not in legacies, or in NGO/consulting firm names, but in ways that seek to give name to our practice and movement — we can do so without being flippant about histories of marginalization. I’m trying to call us into that space and possibility, respectfully, while honoring the pioneers in publicly-oriented UX who decided Citizen Experience represented what I hope is just the beginning of something we are all excited about. Movements shift, names shift. UX in and of itself is evidence of that.

Ok, so — what can we call it instead?

This is a question near and dear to my heart, as someone who does ethnographic work that I have to call UX, or design research fairly often in professional contexts in order to create a space for common dialogue. I adapt. It’s easy. UX works. If you want to continue to use the fun, specific, and government-recognized acronym CX, I do see “customer experience” floating around. I, personally, don’t think that’s a great way to foster the relationships we’d like to foster between individuals, collectives, and government. Why not Community Experience? I know it puts less emphasis on an individual user than the word “Citizen” — but let’s admit it — citizen actually refers to someone who belongs in or to a context. See? The word citizen carries with it the idea of community anyways! And the communities our “customers” (users, citizens) belong to, or feel excluded from, directly impacts how they experience our services in any case. Community Experience has my official vote. What about yours?