Wardens vs. Security Guards: Optimize for Help not Hinder

As my father, a nearshore sedimentologist, conducted field work on the Great Lakes over the 1970s, our family spent part of each summer in one provincial park or another.

Some of my strongest childhood summer memories are of park wardens, dressed just like those in Forest Rangers, and their interpretive programs. They showed The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes at night in the park amphitheaters, and, during the day, they taught us kids about salamanders and lake pollution and clouds and species of trees.

They were also responsible for managing the parks, checking people in and out, and dealing with any issues that arose (loud campers, low toilet paper, broken teeter-totters).

While the provincial park wardens were in charge of “park security,” they never seemed like security guards to me, and they seemed to spend as much or more of their time helping as they did hindering. They were, as a rule, amiable, engaged people who left you with an impression that the core of their role was to help uncover a tiny bit of the natural world for all who passed through their gates.

I’ve been thinking a lot about provincial park wardens of late, especially in regard to what I might generally call “public access user interfaces.”

When Premier Wade MacLauchlan took office in 2015, one of his first actions was to address senior directors in the provincial public service. In his speech he described “ten lenses” through which he intended to make decisions as Premier; in the preamble to discussion of these lenses he touched on the larger general issue of “openness and engagement”:

I have spent the past three years studying and writing about the time in office of our longest-serving premier, Alex B. Campbell, who was well-known for seeing people in his office and for reaching out to the public, including by picking up hitchhikers. For reasons that most of us consider regrettable, including basic personal and public safety, some of the openness of an earlier day has had to go by the wayside as we introduce more security-minded cautions and procedures. As you know, my first week in office included threats on my life that have led to criminal charges. This is not a business for the feint of heart.

While adding security precautions imposes regrettable restrictions on the habitual openness of our premiers, these are measures that can be considered and implemented according to our best judgment and our ability to learn from practices in other jurisdictions. The more nuanced questions of judgment or personal style come when we consider how to strike a balance between openness or accessibility and the availability of time, which is the scarcest resource when it comes to governing. These questions get at the core of how the premier and the entire public administration strike a necessary balance between delegation and coherence.

The “security precautions” he spoke about are ones that have sprung up over the last 16 years since 9/11, and have involved a dramatic limiting of public access to the Shaw, Sullivan and Jones buildings that form the heart of the public service office complex in Charlottetown. Every government employee was issued an electronic ID card, access gates and elevator limitations were added and security guards installed in each building to control access and register visitors.

The end effect of this means, for example, that to visit the Government Services Library in the Jones Building one must now register with a security guard, provide photo identification, and wear a visitor name tag during the visit.

The “habitual openness” the Premier spoke about (which was a feature both of premiers and of the public service in general) was how things were before all this: almost completely unfettered public access to the entire government complex. I used to joke that it was possible for any citizen to walk into the Shaw Building, get in the elevator and go up to the 5th floor, walk into the office of the Minister of Labour and sit in their desk, feet up, without anyone asking the time of day. And that wasn’t much of an exaggeration.

While the force of security officers that person these new posts are generally not unfriendly, the prevailing sense visitors are left with, from the way the officers present themselves, and the way they are positioned physically,  is you don’t belong here.

These security officers are, in other words, the opposite of my childhood park wardens: their help-to-hinder ratio is flipped and they in no way serve the role I think they should be playing, that of a friendly, helpful front door to government.

While the Premier, and the post-9/11 security establishment in general, are never going to win me over to the “more security-minded cautions and procedures” movement – I feel that, more often than not, action on the perceived need for more security begets little but a greater perceived need for more security – I think one thing we can take action on without trying to decide the larger “regrettable-but-necessary-security” issue, is what we might call the “interface design” of government complex access.

It is in our collective best interests that government operates – and is perceived to operate – as by, for, and of the people. The quality of the relationship between citizens and our public servants is key to this goal, and the more roadblocks, real and perceptual, that we put between them, the more we place the quality of this relationship in jeopardy.

There are some people who are really, really good hosts of dinner parties. They greet you at the door with open arms. They take your coat. They make introductions. They offer you a glass of wine. They recognize the inherent tensions of the setting, and do everything they can to mitigate them. Like provincial park wardens, they optimize for help not hinder.

This is what we need standing between us and the public service: rather than security officers, we need government wardens.

Government Wardens would be part concierge, part data analyst, part party host, part telephone operator, part counselor. They could certainly control access, if access control is needed, but the people in the role, and the physical systems supporting them, would be about enabling access, not preventing access. The message they would convey to the citizen visiting their government is you do belong here and, further, that this place is your place; of you, for you, by you.

Fortunately this is not something we need invent from scratch: think of that really great dinner party host, or the front desk staff at the best hotel you’ve ever stayed at, and you’ll understand the role. There are people who are inherently good at this; we just need to cast them. And we know a lot about how to build approachable spaces that we didn’t know in the 1960s when the government complex was planned; we can reconfigure physical spaces to be more comfortable, more useful, more engaging. And, indeed, more secure.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to walk into the new Public Engagement Atrium, built, Reichstag Dome-like, around the existing government buildings, and be greeted by a helpful, smiling warden who would help answer questions, find the right public servant, or service, or application form for you. You could have a coffee. Browse the Internet. Use the library. Renew your driver’s license. Learn how to access open data feeds. Organize a meeting in one of the light-filled democracy incubator spaces freely available. You could even learn about salamanders.

I think we can realize this goal, and I think the long-term affects on how we view ourselves and our government will be profound. Lens number four in the Premier’s address to the public service was titled “an engagement lens” and he said, in part:

Governments everywhere must continuously seek better ways to serve people and engage them. Government must be open and transparent, and take full advantage of modern technologies and media platforms to facilitate access to information and knowledge of government programs and services.

Job one in this regard, I hold, is re-configuring government’s front door, replacing security guards with wardens and changing “move along now” with “how can we help you?”

I stand ready to help.