Public luxuries

I get to use the gym and swimming pool for free on the weekend in the borough where I live because the council wants everyone to be healthier. All of the museums around me are free, and I get to see the world’s best art and enjoy the city’s best buildings without paying a penny. I can walk all over the UK on well-maintained footpaths and there is legislation in place to keep them. All of these things, which I like a lot, have a few things in common:

  • They’re publicly run, or involve a state intervention in some way
  • They’re accessible to many, and are usually free at the point of use
  • They’re really good, and using them makes you go “I can’t believe this is a thing”

They defy the ever-prevalent ‘we can’t have nice things’ mindset by giving people an experience so good they can’t believe it’s available to them. Can we call them public luxuries?

Luxury is a strange term to use here. Scarcity, exclusivity and status are important parts of achieving it, but utility, quality and story are others. It’s also used to describe things that we don’t really need, but might really, really like. Putting ‘public’ in front of the word ‘luxury’ reclaims it and opens it up. Why can’t more really nice things be accessible? Why can’t public services exceed expectations? I’m slightly obsessed with this concept, and would love for more of us in the public sector to aspire for creating luxury.

The reason I’m talking about this is because we need more levers to make experiences better in organisations we work in. We have a responsibility over what we make and put out to the world, and we don’t obsess over it enough. We spend our days talking about processes and risks and technologies, but not enough on making things that are really, really good to experience.

We should be more explicit about the fact that we have really high design standards in government, and we should obsess over how people experience the public services we design, from policy intent to whitespace. It’s about going a step further than ‘meeting user needs’ or ‘meeting user expectations’ or ‘services so good people prefer to use them’. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Buildings, fashion and hardware can undeniably be luxurious – but can software? Stripe have a head of craft, and I often see start-ups asking if they can be more fashion in order to charge more for their B2B software. I don’t see why that couldn’t be a thing, apart from software being a bit boring, but I wonder: what does it mean if you apply it to digital public services?

GOV.UK and NHS.UK feel like this sometimes, and I wish they did more often. Looking up what to do when you have an ankle sprain is really good. It looks beautiful, you’re told that you’re probably going to be fine in a few days, and you don’t need to panic. It’s not always like this, of course.

I recently had to apply for a US visa, and it felt cumbersome, fiddly, and almost intentionally hostile. Polish digital services are a strange one: pretty advanced in terms of the things you can get done online, but really clunky and inconsistent, making it all feel slightly cheap.

Why should we aspire to this? Because it feels amazing for users, and makes really good things available to all, of course. But it’s also good for organisations that deliver these experiences: aiming high builds trust, makes your services cheaper to run because less people fail at using them, and can set a really clear north star.

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