We’re not here to grow

A service designer’s perspective on growth as a government strategy

We’re not here to grow
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Government Digital Service recently released their strategy for gov.uk, and there’s a word they focus on: Growth.

“We want to grow our product offer, grow our user base, and grow our team.”
- Putting growth at the heart of GOV.UK’s strategy

Growth has two main meanings:

  1. To increase: size, usage, customers, market share etc.
  2. To evolve and mature over time.

I’m sure GDS has both kinds of growth in mind, but when the word growth is paired with “strategy,” “user base” and “product offer,” it seems to imply the first kind of growth. But government doesn’t need growth in the same way a business does — in most cases, we already have 100% of the market share.

I don’t mean to pick on GDS — I think this kind of growth focus is quite prevalent in government. The faint (often invisible) line dividing the public and private sectors makes it difficult to differentiate the two, so it’s understandable that we’d adopt the same for-profit ways of thinking.

But here’s a question I’ve been chewing on over the past couple days: is growth a useful government strategy? I have a few thoughts*

Growth is often a vanity metric

There’s a reason why I never use number of signups/members as a success metric for the design community I facilitate: Because those numbers don’t tell us anything that’s actually meaningful. They don’t tell us whether anyone is actually benefitting from that community, or whether we are meeting needs with it. And yet we constantly mistake things like members/page views/clicks as a sign that we’re onto something good.

In fact, those numbers are often an indication that something is wrong. In the case of the design community, it could be that people are feeling unsupported by the organization so they are looking to a community to fill in those gaps. If page views for a government service are high, it might be because the instructions are too confusing to understand on the first visit. These things might be seen as growth, but if they’re not exactly positive growth.

Growth can be harmful

Growth of course has strong ties with capitalism. It implies a numbers obsession, a need to endlessly accumulate in the name of getting ahead and making more profit than your competitor.

Growth also has strong ties with colonialism. An obsession with growth has historically led to conquering groups and places that don’t need or want or benefit from being conquered. This kind of growth mindset has had — and is still having — irreparable, tragic consequences for many.

Growth is unsustainable. Right now, wildfires are burning down the east coast of Canada and blanketing major cities with smoke. Do we need a more stark reminder that a focus on growth at all costs is not good for us?

Isn’t growth is the opposite of what we want to achieve in government?

As a designer working in government, my goal is always to reduce.

Reduce complexity.

Reduce interactions.

Reduce steps.

Reduce barriers to entry.

Reduce inequity and potential for harm.

I would love to be able to design a government service where users didn’t need to go to the big website at all — a service so seamless and invisible that they barely register they are dealing with government.

When usage grows on a product produced by the private sector (like a SaaS product or a new gadget), it’s often a sign that the product is tapping into an umet need.

When usage grows on a government service (like benefits or justice services), it’s often a sign that people are being let down by the system or by the government or by both. Is that the kind of growth we want?

Growing to reduce

Growth is not always bad — it’s necessary. But in my mind, the goal of growth in government should ultimately be to reduce.

  • Growing skills and staff to reduce the complexity of government services
  • Growing internal capacity to reduce reliance on expensive external contracts and products
  • Growing ethical practices to reduce harm
  • Growing green technology to reduce environmental impact
  • and so on

This kind of growth doesn’t fit with the capitalist notion of growth, so maybe we need a different word. Evolving? Improving? Advancing? Cultivating? I’m not much of a wordsmith when it comes to things like this.

But all of this is to say: growth alone is not the strategy people need from government. I think GDS knows this and I hope other public sector leaders do too.

*important caveat, these are my opinions and experiences as a designer in government. I’m a few years out from working for GDS so I don’t have any insight to their strategy or the reasons behind it. I also want to acknowledge that I think GDS and Gov.uk are made up of brilliant, courageous public servants who do incredible work, and these opinions are not a cricisim of that work but rather meant to provide another perspective and shift the mindset surrounding the concept of growth.