Ask Not What Government Can Do
In the United States, Republicans argue that ‘spending’ must be cut, remaining vague on where the cuts ought to be. Meanwhile, Democrats rarely offer a strong defense of government’s strengths. In fact, the topic of the size of government is a red herring altogether. It’s very hard to imagine the government of a country of 300 million people being anything less than ‘large’. And there’d be nothing wrong with that if the government was well-run.
But as long as the debate remains on the topic of size, it won’t go into the topic of smarts. This is a sensitive topic yet again, and while I am in no way an efficiency expert, or a public policy wonk, I do know my way around corporate communication. In this heavily mediated world, government as a class of organization in the US fails terribly.
While corporations spend billions of dollars on branding and communication, government seems somehow shackled to spend as little as possible, which leaves it effectively out of the arena of ideas, images, sounds.
An American is faced with cacophony of symbols, convoluted acronyms, obscure and clichéd seals when interacting with its government. The experience is pretty much guaranteed to be lackluster.
One of the main problem with America’s perception of government is the lack of cohesive communication by government agencies. So many structures work at improving people’s lives, but there is no clear message detailing this success.Faced with the realization of how much our income goes to government entities, citizens seem unable to justify the personal expense. In contrast, when an iPhone user pays a fat AT&T bill, he clearly knows what he’s paying for, and a quick look at the logo on the back of the device will remind him.
Associating a symbol to an experience is at the very core of the branding process.
Growing up Canadian
This observation is partly inspired by childhood in Canada, where both the federal and provincial governments understood the importance of cohesive visual identity programs. The 1965 institution of the Maple Leaf flag, a very modernist design in its own rights, corresponded with the establishment of identity guidelines, which continues to be a strong system that breathes authority, consistency and efficiency – all things desirable from a well-functioning government. In 1969, a Task Force on Government Information reported that “the government is failing to make its presence known and that important federal programs are being carried out without the public being aware of their sponsorship.” By 1970, the Federal ldentity Program was created.
The ‘Canada’ wordmark, set in Baskerville with a small flag above the third ‘a’, the flag, and the rigid typographic system utilizing Helvetica is both simple and elegant.
In Canada, I’m greeted with the calm, efficient face of the Canadian government, in the form of standard gray signs adorned with the red flag. Any visit to a government agency from unemployment office to passport agency, the same sign presented itself.
This clarity of communication means the tax-payer is perfectly aware of the impact of their dollars delivered to the government.
At every interaction, the government clearly brands its services with a wordmark; in the case of Québec, it’s the Fleurdelysé flag and Friz Quadrata customized wordmark, or, in the case of Ontario, it’s the trillium logo, a simplified drawing of the provincial flower.
A consistent system across the country allows each new government service to be clearly branded. This national reach offers significant cost-savings, as new departments are not require to rethink livery design, stationery design, or seal design, with the introduction of any new service. The initial cost of developing the system is easily returned by the cost savings over time.
So could all that’s standing between a better understanding and appreciation of government be some good communication? Well, maybe. If citizens have a clearer idea of the impact of their tax dollars, both the government and its constituents win.
Los Angeles Metro
While visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 2009, I was surprised to find the local transit agency, Metro – the third largest in the country –branded with a clear identity including a beautiful livery system with color-codes for each service (Local, Rapid, Express).
I was struck by a government agency utilizing design to sell public transportation to arguably one of the most car-happy cities in the U.S. I contacted Metro’s Creative Director, Michael Lejeune. He explained the setup of the identity program: Lejeune was recruited by a new CEO to be the new Communications Director. He would only accept the position on the condition that his title be executive position (Chief Communications Officer), with sufficient budget to compete with car companies, that spend millions of dollar selling an alluring lifestyle.
Once Lejeune and another designer were brought on board, they set out to create an own-able mark (the previous Metro symbol was so generic that it could not be trademarked) and an aesthetic that would position Metro as a viable alternative. A comprehensive ad campaign poking fun at car culture, and consistent communication through typical channels resulted in opinion polls exhibiting a 40% increase in user perception of efficiency, frequency and quality of service, even though at that time, there were no significant changes made to these areas. The improved perception of Metro locally eventually contributed to changing perceptions of mass transit in the city. Effects include the passage of L.A. County’s half-cent sales tax increase, known as ‘Measure R’, which is bringing over $40 billions in new transit funding, and the approval of the Westside Subway Extension, which had traditionally been opposed by the wealthy cities on its path, Beverly Hills chief among them. Of course hundreds of dedicated public servant worked towards its success, but it is interesting to consider the impact coherent communication contributed.
Obviously, one could argue that organizations can only look as good as their operations allow, and that clearly the U.S. government is often dysfunctional. But as we keep considering the challenges that face this nation, and that ultimately everybody stands to benefit from a well-run government, it’s time for the government to communicate in a manner that helps its citizen better understand the benefits afforded.
“Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture.”
Frank Lloyd Wright