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[culture|politics] Solutions designed by people who never have to use them

Lisa Costello and I were talking (again) recently about the concept of solutions designed by people who never have to use them. My favorite example for elucidating this concept is what happened to me when my former Day Jobbe employer was acquired by a much larger entity about five or six years ago.

I was being oriented on the new expense reporting system. This was a Web-based Oracle application, and had all the usual features of any expense reporting system. But it also required a great deal of input for accountability. Division code, project code, etc. This without even respect to whether or not an expense was client billable. There were weird lacunae in the feature set that didn’t correspond to how anyone traveling on an expense account actually spends money. And so forth. The result was a horribly clumsy and slow expense reporting system which to my long time analyst’s eye had clearly been designed to meet the requirements of the Legal department with respect to liability and discovery defense. It was a total pain in the ass that absolutely prioritized corporate risk management above functionality.

I finally said to the trainer, “Do any of the senior executives of the company ever have to use this system?” They looked embarrassed and said, “No, they all have admins to do it for them.” My response was, “If our CEO ever has file an expense report himself, we’ll have a new system the next day.”

Life is full of systems like that. Airline check-in processes, for example, are obviously designed to optimize for cost-of-labor, explicitly at the expense of efficiency, usability or the customer experience. Likewise most call centers and help desks. And likewise the entire apparatus of disability management in this country.

I’ve said many times before that our disability system is onerous and punitive, designed with the primary assumption that anyone making a claim is attempting to defraud. It treats people accordingly, and requires all sorts of entirely pointless paperwork and compliance steps from people in their hour of deepest need and least capability. These systems were designed with profit margins, preservation of capital, and fraud management as primary priorities. They were not designed by anyone concerned with helping the poor or disabled, and they certainly were not designed by anyone who ever for a single moment thought they, themselves might fall under the rules being put in place.

So with the ACA. I’m not talking about the issues with healthcare.gov, which are a topic of their own, but the whole clumsy mess built to accomplish a social goal which could have been accomplished much more cheaply and simply through Medicare eligibility expansion. (Among other routes.) All those hundreds of Republican amendments to the law are there to gum up the works, punish sick people for being sick, and poor people for being poor. That’s not what conservatives call it, of course — they have plenty of high minded rhetoric about resource management and audit and reducing dependency — but those are just lies Republicans tell themselves so they can sleep at night in the false belief they are doing the right thing.

But whether you’re talking about the basic Heritage Foundation template of the ACA, the framework written by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats, or the thousand little land mines planted by the GOP, none of those pieces were designed by people who ever expected to use the system personally.

And thus we have the hot mess ACA we have today. My old employer’s corporate expense reporting mess writ large across the landscape of American society. And for the same reasons. Because the nominal purpose of the project is badly misaligned with the priorities of the people who designed it.

None of the solutions I see to the problems with the disability system or the ACA will ever come to pass. Forcing Congressional Republicans to take themselves and their families solely to public clinics for year is impossible. Privilege protects its own. And asking for empathy is a fool’s errand with modern conservatives, who seem to view empathy as weakness, even a sinful betrayal of principle. At best, a foolish form of compromise.

So, yeah. Solutions designed by people who don’t use them dominate our lives in ways small and great. Enjoy…

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