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The Complexity of Simplicity in Government

It isn’t easy to achieve, but simplicity should be a vital goal when serving the public.

Artist Georgia O'Keefe often said, "Select, simplify and amplify."
Complexity, says Brookings Institution social mobility expert Richard V. Reeves, “is the friend of the upper middle class.” To me, Reeves’ observation provides insight into the insidious way governments can, even without realizing it, work against the bulk of the people they seek to serve. It reminds me of my days as a social worker, when a lot of my clients would ask me to interpret government letters and forms for them. I worked for the state of Pennsylvania, but the forms they brought to me were from the city, the county, the state, the feds. It didn’t matter -- it was all “the government” to them, and the special skill I brought was that I could interpret bureaucratese.

If what Reeves says is true, then what Nick Macchione, director of health and human services for San Diego County, Calif., calls “potent simplicity” is the friend of everyone else. Macchione and his colleagues used the concept to create a clear, empowering message to underpin Live Well San Diego, the county’s strategic community health plan. They came up with notion of “3-4-50” to communicate the idea that three behaviors -- smoking, lack of exercise and poor nutrition -- contribute to four chronic diseases that cause more than half of the county’s deaths.

In the book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, authors Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn write that achieving simplicity is anything but simple. “It takes work to organize, streamline, clarify and generally make sense of the world around us,” they write. An example of the scope of effort involved is Rhode Island’s work to increase voter participation. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s team began by redesigning the ballot, working with the Center for Civic Design, the federal Election Assistance Commission, the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Brennan Center for Justice. They tested it with focus groups and people on the street and then educated voters with videos, sample ballots online, interviews with Gorbea in both Spanish and English, and 120 voter information sessions.

Simplifying the school selection process for Boston families -- a system perceived by many as working to perpetuate the inequities it was supposed to be fighting -- also was anything but simple. Susan Nguyen, chief of staff for the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, says the changes had to be made with a lot of attention to who was using the process. Collaborating with Code for America and spending a lot of time talking with parents, Nguyen and her team ditched an eight-page printed foldout crammed with complex details in favor of a multilingual Web page that functions like 

Reeves quotes a mantra of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “Select, simplify and amplify.” Public officials who take those words to heart in shaping public services will have succeeded in opening another front for combating inequality and the decline of trust in government.

This column has been updated to correct the title of the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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