Chief Executive Officer FrontlineSMS
Deciding access: platforms and process
I have always been eager to figure out what I am going to be when I grow up. As I get older, though, I look back from time to time and realize that with each subsequent decision, I left entire branches of life’s decision tree behind. As it turns out, I’m never going to be a professional athlete, a doctor, or a Navy Seal. Don’t cry for me, I’ll live with it.
The point is, when we make decisions, we usually focus on the problems they solve, ignoring the choices those decisions rule out. Court systems are no different. Every rule of procedure, administrative process, or regulatory guideline excludes some group of people from accessing legal services. Building a courthouse isolates those who live far away. Courthouses without ramps shut out the handicapped. Requiring a registered address exiles the homeless. The requirement of written documentation marginalizes the illiterate. Formalistic processes exclude the uneducated and, often, those unable to afford legal counsel. Every aspect of service provision is a compromise between the requirements of formalism, practicality, and the right of access to justice.
One of the central aspects of client-focused system design is to engage your community where they already operate. Institutions reach the most people when they adapt their own habits, not when they expect the public to adapt theirs. It’s why we have billboards, banner ads, and hotel keys with pizza delivery promotions. When thinking about the platforms we use to communicate about legal services, information, and processes, then, it’s worth asking whether we’re designing systems that increase or decrease equality of access.
A few quick facts. Worldwide, 2.3 billion people have access to the Internet (including on mobile devices). These figures refer to active subscriptions and people living within wireless coverage, not necessarily active users. By contrast, there are more than 6 billion active mobile phone subscriptions, with 4.3 billion active users of text messages (SMS- Short Message Service). There is a common misperception that SMS is a technology that’s best left to emerging markets and poor countries, based on the assumption that everyone in wealthier nations exclusively use online platforms. However, the United States is one of the three largest SMS markets in the world. Demographic breakdowns show that young people, who are more Internet native than any of the rest of us, are among the largest users of SMS. Simply put, SMS reaches more people in more places than any other platform, ever.
For legal services, it’s not just better to reach more people (although it is that, too), it’s a mandate of democratic constitutions and international law. For those of us designing tools, reforming processes, and creating regulations, the decisions we make determine who gets left out. It’s our responsibility to adapt ourselves to reach the most people- to create equality of access. These are decisions, after all, that we’ll all have to live with.
In my next post, I’ll describe the ways that SMS can improve the quality, quantity, and efficiency of dispute resolution services.