The new firm, called GovEmpower, is very new. But its ambitions are to help the vast number of small and medium-sized governments across the country reimagine the way they design services and processes.
The allure of modern design ideas — dramatically improving the ability of government to serve the people — is beginning to make its way into the public sector. But so far, much of that dabbling has been done at the federal level with teams like 18F and in larger government jurisdictions like the state of Michigan.
A budding consultancy called GovEmpower hopes to expand that work to the vast number of small and medium-sized local governments that make up so much of the country.
“These things started peaking in like 2017, and they got really good, and I think we’re at a tipping point,” said Kyle Knott, one of the company’s co-founders. “I think that tipping point is going to involve getting these small and medium-sized governments involved, and that’s not being done. Big cities are using it, big departments are using it, but small to medium-sized governments are not.”
The firm is very much in the early stages; it consists of Knott and his co-founder Mindy Harrell, who works on human-centered design for the Turkish e-commerce website Hepsiburada. Knott has worked for several local governments and chambers of commerce in Wisconsin and Illinois and is gearing up to pursue a doctorate in public policy and management. The pair are building a network of advisers and spending their time learning about government problems they could tackle before taking on official customers.
Their goal, once they get up and running, is not to simply work on individual projects or reports, but instead try to create culture change in government.
“We don’t want to just show, we want to teach,” Harrell said. “We want to ingrain a certain mindset in governments, which is always start with a real lead that has been proven, a proven resident’s need, and always verify. Once you come up with a solution, it’s not enough to just put it out there. You have to test that solution, you have to continually iterate on that solution. That’s sort of the heart of human-centered design.”
That concept has gained traction in state and local government in recent years. By examining the ways ordinary people interact with a process — whether that’s in the form of a Web-based user interface, a paper form or the channels available to a person to seek help. In 2018, the state of Michigan used design principles to cut down a 40-page application for public benefits to 18 pages, removing some of the friction from the process for people seeking help.
But in smaller governments, with fewer resources, it might not be as easy to engage in that kind of reinvention.
“One thing that we’ve seen is that, for example, a lot of small to medium-sized governments don’t have processes for soliciting feedback from their residents, or if they do it’s sort of like very general,” Harrell said. “It’s one big survey, and it’s not project-based, and it’s not necessarily focused on making sure that it’s as representative as it could be … maybe they have improved their forms process, but they haven’t actually tested it with anybody or they haven’t actually asked people how they could improve it.”
Ultimately, the duo hopes that moving the mindset of the public sector toward one that emphasizes people and usability will mean that people feel more connected to their government and vice versa — and maybe, just maybe, that could help heal some of the political strife and mistrust in the U.S.
“I think it’s likely that what could lead to significantly relieving the amount of tension we’re experiencing in our democracy right now is going back to the community and getting to know your neighbors, and having meaningful conversations with diverse perspectives at the dinner table,” Knott said.
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