Design of the Union 2013

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Washington, DC – As the reelected president and new Congress dust themselves off and begin remaking America again, it’s worth recognizing how last year transformed the inner workings of our democracy and the industries that strive to improve it. The lesson is that everything in the public sector that can be social must be to keep pace with the public’s mindset.

With technical information almost doubling every year now, it’s no surprise that there are rapidly evolving systems – and new solutions – to help solve our nation’s very real problems. Now, alongside the image-makers and storytellers who have traditionally driven public campaigns, the most interesting new key players in the political industry are the social scientists and design experts who are applying behavioral psychology and statistical modeling to motivate action.

Even as Capital Hill stumbles over the fiscal cliff and lands on the debt ceiling extension and new cabinet secretaries enter the confirmation turnstiles, a new generation of leaders is promising to boldly change the public discourse. They would be wise to deploy a new approach that increases the impact for – while decreasing costs to – government leaders. It begins by empowering citizens to take part in their work – offering a clear alternative from those mired in obstructing progress and expanding gridlock.

Every major issue confronting our nation would benefit from this modern approach – from rebuilding our economy and developing new energy solutions to increasing access to health care and a quality education and increasing our security and standing around the world to fixing our broken immigration system.

It’s not a new concept. As a matter of fact, the merits of this bottom-up approach were proven last year – at scale. Many of the new officials arriving in Washington this month employed high-ranking campaign deputies in last year’s elections to make discoveries in the world of big data, specifically to increase the depth and breadth of their engagement with constituents. They deployed technologies and sharp design-thinking methodologies that made taming it a boon for their efforts. But while, there’s little consensus about how those roles fit best in their new public offices, last year’s lessons have already started to disrupt the consulting and PR markets in Washington.

Last month, nearly two hundred experts and leaders gathered for the launch of SocialxDesign’s DC office. Some of the city’s brightest minds joined us for a panel discussion. One rising star who runs a team at Democratic Party headquarters had the final word when she asked a mind-numbing question – given all the progress we made in 2012, why are organizations running post-election campaigns the same old way? Why aren’t they combining what we’ve learned from the Obama campaign – bridging the worlds of online social engagement and offline social movements – at scale?

While reason often gets lost in Washington, the common sense answer is hard to ignore. A new era of reform can continue to occur only if Americans continue to mobilize against the influence of entrenched interests. This means arguing the case and cutting through propaganda, the fear campaigns and well-funded lies and distortions. It also means using old world organizing and the new world of social technologies to multiply impact. The world of communications and engagement has changed – and how governments, NGOs and businesses use them is changing too.

This past year illustrated the impact it can have – where victors deployed a new cadre of experts to create unified models for capturing and managing data, they tested and implemented high-velocity interactions where innovation was focused on where people need it most across their whole experience, and they embedded new measurements for deep and sustained public engagement.

Now is the time to redouble those efforts – to expose and challenge the failures of the past and to use new tools and techniques to chart a new course. The tactics that helped dig the hole we’re in aren’t likely to be the best in getting us out of it, so this is a welcome change. After all, if our leaders are to claim their mandates and form new majorities, the public must be inspired to act. At SocialxDesign, we’re gearing up to design for this effort.

Toby Chaudhuri
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Toby Chaudhuri is co-founder of SocialxDesign, a new strategy consulting firm that enables businesses, government agencies, and NGOs to grow by deliberately empowering the people they serve. He's a veteran strategist who works with President Obama's race-based initiatives and on engagement projects for the US State Department. He served as a political appointee to President Clinton and deputy press secretary to Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign.

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