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Designers Are Driving Culture Change in City Hall

The philosophies often used by designers to create human-centered products are generating a culture change within local government.

Designers — real modern designers who conduct human-centric research to create products and pages that work for people rather than systems — have started to arrive in local government, bringing with them philosophies that are changing cultures.

This culture change is one in which governments have begun to modify their services to better meet the needs of constituents, seeing themselves as customer service organizations rather than big bureaucratic monoliths that have always done something X-way and always will. This impact is perhaps most evident in the work being done by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams.

Innovation Teams, or i-teams, are groups essentially embedded in city halls to “help city leaders drive bold innovation, change culture, and create an ongoing ability to tackle big problems and deliver better results for residents,” according to the i-teams section on the Bloomberg website. Stephanie Wade, lead for the innovation teams program, said recently that nearly all of the 24 total teams have a designer on them.

“Design and designers are still relatively new to city halls,” Wade said, “but they’re increasingly becoming more popular and more prevalent. It’s definitely something that’s growing.”

This is a stark contrast to when the i-teams program first started several years ago. Back then, there weren’t any designers involved. Wade said that as philosophies changed and city leaders and other i-team members began to understand the value of having designers on board, so too did the prevalence of the position within city halls.

What is perhaps more notable than the presence of designers is the perspective they bring to problem-solving discussions.

“Designers at the core bring a new way to solve problems,” Wade said. “They are very much focused on building a root understanding of the really complex causes of problems in cities.”

Chief among these new approaches is a focus on human-centric design, which more often than not involves going into the field to learn more about constituents and their lives before then making decisions within government. Using human-centric design has a dual benefit of creating services that will actually work for constituents, as well as will be worthwhile for government, since the field is a part of this process.

Wade said design philosophies can be applied to any mode in which government delivers services — almost all of them over the years have developed in a way that leaves much room for improvement.

Tracy Colunga, i-team director for the local government in Long Beach, Calif., detailed the ways in which design and design-based research philosophies have contributed to work in that city. Broadly speaking, Colunga described design as “the DNA of our innovation team.”

She said that what happens in local government is actually a riff on user-centered design called civic innovation design, and what it does is basically apply the principles of the former to the needs of local governments and communities.

For Colunga and the rest of the Long Beach i-team, they have been using it for the past year to meet the mayor's request for help addressing the challenges related to public safety — specifically reducing crime. The team went to work researching causes, and it found that a small group of repeat offenders who were in and out of jail were often responsible for much of the crime, so much so that if they could be rehabilitated, Long Beach’s overall crime rate would drop. They determined this by doing a deep dive into five years of crime data.

The next step was to talk to those offenders and see where city efforts to keep them from committing more crimes would be most effective. To find this out, the team also conducted interviews with city jail staff, county jail staff, courthouse employees and individuals who work for nonprofit organizations aimed at stemming homelessness.

“We were asking what are the gaps in the system and what could we do together to improve the repeat offender situation,” Colunga said.

There were many steps, but what they found was that if they installed a clinician in the city jail, repeat offenders could get help there. They also moved to create a multidisciplinary team that meets monthly to share information about helping repeat offenders and how best to nudge them toward diversionary services and, ultimately, to keep them out of jail.

Colunga noted that there is almost always a technology component to the team’s work, but that that component is rarely the cornerstone. Data, data analytics and using tech to share those things across departments are incredibly useful to help them and the rest of local government understand what’s happening in a community and why, as well as how best to fix it, but it’s far more effective when complemented by design-based innovations like doing deep-dive research.

“There’s no way we could get a technology solution to work without the culture shift of people wanting to work together around a shared issue,” Colunga said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.