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3 Tips for Designing Municipal Tools with Employees in Mind

While many cities offer technical tools to municipal workers, many are not well suited to employees’ needs.

by / June 2017

A number of years ago, a Midwestern state rolled out a comprehensive procurement system that allowed state employees to identify purchases based on 1,400 different categories. However, despite the specificity built into the system, the state was surprised to find that 20 percent of procurements were marked as “other.” The problem was not that there were not enough categories, but rather that state employees did not want to scroll through all 1,400 to find the right one.

This is all too typical an occurrence in city government. While many cities offer a host of technical tools to municipal workers, many are not well suited to employees’ needs. These types of problems underscore the value of human-centered design, a process in which the needs of end users are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

Many cities have begun employing user-centered design when developing processes and tools for residents, partnering with human-centered design leaders like Ideo to conduct research on resident experiences and adjust designs based on their findings. In some cases, municipalities have created departments of human-centered design, while in others individual departments have worked with Ideo.

Cities should apply this same process to their internal design, encouraging departments to bring in human-centered design experts or to train employees in human-centered strategies in order to accomplish these goals and create municipal tools with the city worker in mind. Here are three ways cities can model friendlier designs for employees, based on the concepts of human-centered design:

Mapping user experience: Journey mapping is one type of research that tracks users’ experience throughout a process. For example, Gainesville, Fla., mapped 13 steps of its permitting process in order to understand the barriers that residents encounter as they attempt to start a business. The city learned that residents often find themselves lost during this long process, unsure where to obtain the next permit or how many steps remain. As a result, Gainesville created a Department of Doing to act as a guide through the permitting process, providing a physical space where residents can obtain all the permits they need, a Web platform for guidance and a map that informs residents where they are in the process.

Cities may take a similar approach when creating tools or procedures for municipal employees, breaking the user experience down into component steps, observing where employees run into problems, and either reorganizing the process or creating tools that make the process easier.

Tailoring tools to employees: In conducting user research, cities may find that employees in the same department require differently designed tools or procedures. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) conducted customer experience research in 2014 that found that different veterans had distinct needs and preferences. While older veterans valued their close relationships with VA staffers, younger veterans were less interested in the human touch, prioritizing quick and easy access to services via laptops and mobile devices. As a result, the VA segmented its services, providing employees interacting with younger veterans more advanced technological tools to meet the needs of their service recipients.

(Employee) crowdsourcing: Cities may also promote user-centered design by crowdsourcing ideas and opening up the ideation process to city workers. Crowdsourcing is a process in which a government or organization provides a platform for residents or employees to submit ideas, promoting a bottom-up creation process. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a crowdsourcing platform called IdeaHub that allows employees to post ideas and suggestions. Cities could apply the same process after deploying new tools for their employees, allowing municipal workers to identify common problems and suggest improvements.

By using human-centered design, cities can greatly improve the usability and effectiveness of the tools they distribute to workers, getting more value from municipal dollars. And, perhaps more importantly, human-centered approaches engage everyday employees in important city decisions, making local government more accountable and democratic.

Chris Bousquet, a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed to this column.

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Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.

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