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Using Design Principles To Reshape Local Government

There are a lot of Post-its involved.

A significant challenge for much local government is understanding what constituents want and need. The top-down approach that many agencies employ can create a disconnect between services and who’s being served.

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Enter Public, a new nonprofit that wants to bring the tenets of good design to local governments. The idea is that by approaching government bureaucracy as a design problem, agencies can better learn what their constituents want, and then design successful programs based on those insights.

“It’s not so much that every government employee should be a designer as much as with a lot of the different functions of government, if you add design to the equation, government could be doing government a lot better,” says Dave Seliger, the founder of Public. Starting a new program generally entails a group of people sitting in a room, coming up with an idea, launching it, and hoping it works. Public is premised on the idea that a more creative, flexible mindset will help both agencies and the people they serve.

Seliger, who himself has worked in city government and is a self-taught designer, translates design into a framework that agencies can understand. Through Public’s initiative Public School, Seliger has partnered with local design firms and developed a design-based curriculum to train agencies on user research, prototyping, and testing in four areas that every government agency is focused on: community engagement, strategic planning, program design, and marketing and communication. In some ways, Public School is a form of design consulting–Post-it notes included.

Public School recently held a workshop on digital design for the city of Newark’s IT department. The department serves both city employees and citizens who use government services online–two entirely separate end users. At the workshop, the design team asked the IT department’s employees about the types of complaints they get at the help desk. This exercise helped pinpoint the needs of the different groups of people the department serves.

Public School is also holding a series of workshops for New York City’s Department of Veterans Services, an agency that launched in summer of 2016. “Every employee has come here with a mindset of, we have a chance to really put veterans at the center of all our decision making,” says Jason Mangone, who leads partnerships for the Department of Veterans Services. “Everyone came with that abstract idea but didn’t have the training or skillset to be able to execute that in the real world.”

During the department’s first workshop with Public School in January, local design firm TYTHEdesign trained the department’s outreach team on how to engage with veterans, helping to shift the team’s mindset toward the idea that their job is to listen rather than to tell veterans what services they need. Next, the department is working with another Public School partner design firm, 3×3, on how to bring together all the mentoring services and organizations for veterans in New York to increase the number of people they reach–all of whom are in different stages of their transition back to civilian life and have different needs.

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Seliger says that talking to government officials about who their “end users” are has been particularly challenging, especially since every agency has different slices of the population it’s serving. In the case of the New York City’s Department of Veterans Services, the department has to contend with the fact that there is a great diversity of needs among the 210,000 veterans it’s trying to serve.

These are hard problems to solve, and a few design workshops aren’t going to magically make government more efficient. But incorporating more empathy into a notorious bureaucratic process won’t hurt.

Public already has interest from several other cities in the country, including Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles, and hopes to one day be in every large and small city in the U.S. Seliger is hoping to launch another program within the year to get more young people excited about working for local government–to connect them with jobs and train them with human-centered design skills.

Through his work in city government and with Public School, Seliger has found that the best way to convince government employees to use design is to avoid using the word “design” at all.

“That’s kind of been our secret sauce,” he says. “We don’t use words like user-centered design, design thinking, user research–all those terms we banned.”

[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Dave Seliger]

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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