Henry David Thoreau once said, "That government is best that governs least." Easy for him to say. Stuck out by himself at Walden Pond, he never had to deal with potholes on his morning commute or broken streetlights at night.
It can be fashionable to rail against government—but that may be because we mostly notice the things that government gets wrong. "You drive for miles on perfectly paved roads but are outraged when you run into one pothole," says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School.
It's hard to blame people for feeling that way, however, when most of what we see government doing is slinging potshots on the news, says Norton. "The American people think government does nothing because most of what they see is politicians talking," he says. "There is a very tenuous link between people arguing in Congress and the streets getting fixed."
“The sweet spot is where you are working hard, but also getting things done”
In a new paper, Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services, Norton worked with Ryan W. Buell, assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit, to see what would happen if they showed people exactly what government was doing on their behalf—starting on the most basic level of street repairs. Would that kind of transparency increase faith in government overall?
"We are at the point where attitudes about government are at their lowest ever," says Buell. "There is a danger that that disgust can lead to disengagement. Showing the ways in which government materially affects people's lives through its actions has the potential to improve perceptions and increase engagement."
In previous research , Buell and Norton had experimented with customer satisfaction in travel and dating websites. They found that when these sites visually showed the effort being exerted by the site during searches or transactions, customers were more likely to be satisfied while waiting for results. "There is a strange human tendency to value effort independent of outcome," says Norton. "If you appear to be working hard and sweating, people will assume you are doing a good job."
Buell and Norton put that into practice by partnering with an organization called Code for America, which describes itself as the "Peace Corps for Geeks." Its coders take publicly available data and use technology to visualize the work of government for the public in accessible ways. In Boston, for example, the group worked with the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics to release data on public works requests for repairs such as potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights.
Using a cell phone application developed by the mayor's office, citizens can request service by snapping a photo of the problem and uploading it to the city accompanied by GPS data of its location. These service requests are then visualized on Code for America's Daily Brief website, which Buell and Norton used in their experiment.
The researchers worked with the organization to pilot several versions of the website, each with different visualizations of this data, in order to test its influence on citizens. (See slideshow below.)
In the first iteration of the website, the researchers included only the number of open requests for repairs, along with the number of requests opened and closed the previous day, in order to show that government was actively responding to requests. In the second condition, they included pins on a map showing the location of these issues; when users clicked on a pin, a window opened showing a photo of the problem along with its description and location.
Buell and Norton found that when shown the second version of the website, users were much more impressed with the work that government was doing—and much more favorable about the efficacy of government overall.
"There's a big difference between providing people with information about what's being done and allowing them to see it for themselves," says Buell. "Moving from the 'base case' where we just show statistics to a transparent version of the website that shows the problems that are being addressed, significantly improves attitudes towards government and government service."
When asked if "Government often does a better job than given credit for," only 34 percent of people agreed after viewing the first case; but some 57 percent agreed after the second case. Seeing the visual evidence of government working had broader implications as well. When participants were asked, "In general, is the government's effect on your life positive or negative?" 76 percent said "positive" after viewing the first case—but a full 91 percent gave that answer after viewing the second.
Transparency by itself doesn't always improve perceptions, however. In a third version of the website, Buell and Norton not only included pins on the map for the repair requests that had recently been opened and closed, but also included pins for all open requests. Thus, instead of seeing a few dozen pins representing jobs recently reported or completed, they saw thousands of pins representing jobs yet to be done.
When surveyed on their views towards government, those participants' views were no more favorable than the participants shown the first case with no pins at all. "It's one thing to show what government is doing, but in this case, it is also showing you what government is not doing, and that becomes more salient," says Buell. He hastens to add that perceptions in the last case weren't worse than the perceptions in the first—they just weren't any better.
Those results, however, suggest that effort by itself is not enough; it must also be coupled with a positive outcome. Norton compares it to results in their online dating research in which users were more satisfied when they saw the website working hard for them during searching-but only if they ended with attractive or average looking people at the end of the search. "If they received less attractive people, they were actually angrier," says Norton. "They could blame themselves, but of course no one ever did."
In the same way, citizens may be happier with their government if they see it working hard on their behalf-but only if they see it actually accomplishing what it sets out to do. "The sweet spot," says Buell, "is where you are working hard, but also getting things done." Even Thoreau would have to look kindly on government then.