Scene 17: Ilya pitches Ng

In which, Ilya consults with an IRS agency official to help find better ways to explain the agency to the public.

Government will be compelled to explain itself to every category of citizens.

There was a longstanding statute that made each government agency responsible for maintaining a lively educational site that explained its function to different audiences. There were several motivations for the law: transparency, certainly, and civics education for all. But, most importantly, it was designed to help prevent a corrosive populist cynicism that in past decades had led to damaging convulsions.

Ilya had been brought into the IRS offices to do an assessment that had been prompted by increasingly poor ratings of their educational site. "As you know," the Director, Sam Ng, continued, "it's hard to make tax collection interesting. But, that's too bad, we just have to devote more resources to it!"

Ilya nodded intently. "Sure, and we have some initial ideas. My team has done some reviewing – we really like the tax-evasion stories that you've collected, and there's a lot of other good things that I think we can build on."

Ilya and Ng

"I'm glad to hear it," Mr. Ng replied flatly. "If I may, I wanted to suggest that we start by, I'd like to walk you through some metrics."

The two men spent the better part of the afternoon looking at various site statistics—general site "stickiness", engagement, and bounce rates, as well as internally-defined metrics relating to specific content objectives. The objectives varied depending on the entryway—12th-Grade Casual, versus 12th-Grade Assigned, versus Adult-General, versus Antagonist, versus Immigrant-ESL, and so on. Of course, much content was used across these categories. The first priority at the moment was 12th-Grade Casual, which, given kids' limited knowledge and attention spans, was one of the highest bars to surmount.

After Mr. Ng finally signaled interest in Ilya's brilliant ideas, Ilya started in cautiously.

"Please understand that these are only intended as conversation-starters, but… a few thoughts. One, I think 'funny' is really helpful for this audience, and I can show you a couple examples later. It might even mean poking fun, in what might initially seem like a mean-spirited way—we can get into that. Another is, we have a couple game ideas, set preferably in the 1800s – kind of a cat-and-mouse, cops-and-robbers thing where the kids start making moves instantly and you explain it as they go…"

Mr. Ng smiled and put his finger on his chin. "So, of course, avoid the boring, real, factual stuff?"

"Definitely," asserted Ilya.

Mr. Ng's brow furrowed slightly. "We should talk some more about the objective for this young audience. Remembering, of course, that in reality there's a huge variety of visitors coming through this entryway. So, for example, we certainly want them to like our agency, and we certainly want them to appreciate us. How would you…how might you approach this question?"

Ilya had helped another agency with this young audience before, and so he believed he knew the lay of the land here. "Well, there is definite regulatory guidance on this question, but if you actually follow it, you're almost guaranteed to have ratings problems. For Casual, you've really got to push the envelope, and it has to feel a little subversive. You have to create something that they'll want to tell their friends about…"

Mr. Ng, smiled stiffly. "So… kind of, 'catch the Bad Rich Guy'?"

"Yes!" said Ilya, but with a sudden pang of doubt. Mr. Ng paused, furrowing his brow.

"It's a promising idea," said Mr. Ng, "though, what do you think… wealthy people would think of it?"

People today know little about their government. Who can blame any of them, it's extremely boring. Uninterpretable statistics. Bureaucratese. It feeds a lot of alienation.

The solution, quite simply, is to make it interesting. That's what has been depicted here: a law requiring government to explain itself to ordinary citizens, in turn requiring each branch and each agency to build and promote multimedia experiences that tell it like it is, and get everyday people to understand. If every citizen experiences at least a bit of this, it will ensure that everyone knows they can easily understand any piece of their government they'd like, in a matter of minutes, and that it won’t be tedious.

Easier said than done, of course. Different inquirers have different needs, different background knowledge. The pathway to building effective resources is through audience analysis.

I am sometimes guilty of using the "build it once, use it a million times" argument for high-quality multimedia development. The idea that, instead of re-creating the wheel at every school and every university, we can centrally develop top-quality e-learning material for common subjects. The admittedly-large investment pays for itself through amortization over thousands of schools, over billions of online interactions.

The potential fallacy, though, is the assumption that the high-quality material will be equally effective with everyone. But it doesn't work that way. Instead, it has to be targeted. In the best imaginable case, each person would have a private tutor, each interaction totally customized. But for the economics to work for centrally-produced material, you have to define categories of people. Then, learning material is specifically designed for people in each category.

Fortunately, though, there is a lot more that can be done beyond that. Individuals can dynamically indicate what they're interested in as they go along. Some content is reusable across different categories. Designers will know how to optimize these tradeoffs when mapping out the interaction paths.

So it would not be unduly expensive for agencies like the IRS to help any person understand why this part of the government exists, why it is important, and what it is doing. Foregoing the purchase of one hundred-million-dollar fighter jet (not a product line—one plane) would probably cover it.

When citizens have this understanding, their suspicions about government would be significantly less, and they'll be more resistant to anti-government hyperbole. It's not about learning entertaining facts, it's about developing a shared consciousness that government really is doing things we all agree that we want, solving critical problems that otherwise will simply not get solved.

There needs to be a strong sense of partnership between citizens and the government.


cast of characters