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The most powerful relationships in our lives are the ones that span the landscape of joy to pain, excitement to frustration, love to loss. It is in these relationships that we take risks - we learn and we grow. Trusting that the best relationships in our lives will lead us to somewhere spectacular, we give time and energy to unfamiliar things and embark, together, on these complex journeys.

So why, in our lives as citizens, do we accept the lack of dynamism in our governments’ efforts to build relationships with us? It seems that we accept that in the case of government, “relationship” (at best) for the average resident comes through the form of being “consulted” or “engaged” in a way that is predictable and transactional?

Those with the privilege of being engaged and aware of what’s happening in their neighbourhood are familiar with the critique of public consultation: it engages the same groups, who already hold power, at times and locations inaccessible to most. With these “engaged” folks, discussing the problematic nature of consultation has become as banal as a conversation about the weather. Even the word “consultation”, and its companion comment “we don’t consult, we engage” has become part of progressive rhetoric that increasingly holds less and less meaning.

Behavioral science and the success of applied design approaches to learning about civil society has shown us that instead of “meeting people where they are” as an end in itself, we have to show up to the proverbial “there” in a way that signals to people that the “engagement” is actually the beginning of complex relationship. What’s more, it has to consciously and unconsciously signal the familiar elements of the best relationships in our lives, building on our lived experience of what this concept means and taking into account the differences in our intersectional identities. We know that the only thing we can predict about humans is that they will inevitably be irrational, and so we need to stop designing engagement in such rational, linear ways.

We’ve come to accept the orthodoxies that engaging with government is serious, effortful, time-consuming, and static. I suggest we explore what happens when we flip these orthodoxies - these pieces of unchallenged wisdom that are creating weaknesses in our relationships across civil society – and design for a world where engaging with government is delightful, flowing, right-sized for each of our lives, and dynamic. What if engaging with government was among the most delightful experiences in our lives? Instead of rebuilding consultation processes and widgets, let’s flip the convention and build a relational experience, not a transactional one.

Designing for a deeper relationship and better connection with the public is a very different “brief” than designing consultation processes and project-based engagement. Real relationships build our social infrastructure, and leave us with an ongoing – and maybe even joyful – way to advance our civic dialogue, our cities and our democracy.