This paragraph in Eugene Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving is one of my favourites:

In confronting the inevitable design trade-offs at the individual level, it helps to look at any set of routines from two perspectives: that of the case manager in the agency and that of the citizen whose case is being “treated.” It often happens that routines designed to make life easier for program staff only make life harder for citizens. (“Sorry, we don’t give advice about that; send in the application and we’ll respond….”)

If good customer service is about reducing the customer’s mental burden, that’s especially true of government services, where reducing the mental burden of citizens should be a primary objective. But we’ve all encountered bureaucracy that’s made accessing services harder. Whether those barriers are put in place in the name of efficiency, to prevent abuses of the system (which we should be prepared to tolerate to some extent), as a calculated plan to discourage use, or just out of poor design, they have the same effect of creating, rather than relieving, mental burden. And a lot of these measures end up costing, rather than saving, money.

Bardach encourages policy makers to go back to basics: What problem were you trying to solve when you implemented this program in the first place? Are the metrics you’re using to evaluate its success the right ones?

In other words, why did you enter public service, if not to serve the public?

I’m being glib, of course. Every employee, in government or otherwise, has to answer to more than one group of stakeholders. But it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day tasks of the job and lose sight of why the job exists. Looking at the work through a mental burden lens can bring the underlying goal back into focus—and may even help you find more efficient ways to achieve it.