The Citizen Designer–Part 4: Design Reinventing Government

This is series of articles I am writing to document my discovery, observations, and journey into the world of design for Smart City Innovations and Civic Tech. I hope it will encourage conversation about how design can improve our lives. I’d like to dedicate this article to my late mom, Alice Juanita Rausch, who raised six model citizens who all vote and pay attention!

Words matter more these days. One thing I remember when growing up is whenever we complained about an issue that we didn’t like or deemed unfair, my mom would say, Well quit complaining and write your congressman.
Sometimes we did and we’d get a response. Mom would smile because she knew we learned that citizen involvement was worthwhile. While writing the outline for this article I came across a Chicago startup called Get Loud Now. It allows you to send a personalized postcard to any elected official, from your alderman to the President. I can’t help but imagine my mom using it. I’d bet she’d probably outshine or at least rival the twitter activity of DJT.

What’s the right word here?
In the last article I opted to use the word reinvention. I still like that word because it evokes the work necessary to create change, like writing elected officials, attending events to share ideas and information, or other actionable means of involvement. But something about the idea of design reinventing government was bothering me. Is that what’s happening? Can design even do that? Should design do that? I started thinking about our government in terms of design. One could say that the Declaration of Independence is somewhat of a problem statement and one could view the United States Constitution as a type of wire-frame, and a pretty darn good one at that. With any design problem, iteration is needed as the users and problems change and shift over time. Our government is no exception. With the advent of technology, citizens need and demand user experiences created with design thinking and empathy, hopefully for an improved product. I am still not sure if reinvention is the right word, but something is happening.

Perhaps we don’t need to reinvent government per se, but reinvent how we interact with government, and in turn, reinvent how it serves us. Maybe the reinvention is happening in another way. I am hopeful that design can improve government and my journey into civic tech has shown me some work has already begun. But, like any good designer, I need some feedback. I reached out to some folks on the front lines of city government that are helping create Chicago 2.0. Let’s see what they say.

Design is part of innovation. 
I first heard Danielle speak at the UX CAMP last June. She is CIO and Commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology. Previously she was the Chief Technology Officer for Chicago and led efforts to use data and technology to make government more effective and innovative. As stated in a recent article by ChicagoInno, Chicago is ranking high in the nation and globally as a Smart City. I caught up with her to ask her about design’s role in the onset of technology and innovation.

You launched a Design office within the Department of Innovation and Technology in 2018 and hired a Design Director for that office. How did this come to be? Who decided the city needed one?

DANIELLE: (Laughter) Well I did. I decided that we needed one. I saw significant opportunity to improve our user experience online. I think, over the years, many of the online applications developed didn’t necessarily feel like a cohesive family, right? We would build applications on a project-by-project basis without a cohesive design strategy and system, each team was sort of left to their own devices to reinvent the wheel. And so what we ended up with is a disjointed experience, you can go to one city application and then a different application and feel like you’re in two separate places, that doesn’t make sense to us.

We want to build trust between government and our residents and if they’re questioning whether something is a legitimate site due to design, security concerns or other things, that doesn’t help us with what we’re trying to do here. That’s one reason.

Another reason is some organizations within our ecosystem, like the Smart Chicago Collaborative introduced the civic user testing group to engage residents to actually test applications and provide feedback and get involved. We recognized that we needed to make investments in the city to build out our own process and infrastructure that develops things from the beginning, things more likely to meet our residents’ and businesses’ needs. So it seems to us it’s also a good investment in terms of having users who can accomplish what they set out to accomplish in a way that is easier and more enjoyable.

It seems that Human Centered Design and Design Thinking are part of a strategy for that department. How does this relate to the remainder of city government? Is there a bigger picture here?

DANIELLE: Sure. I think there is a bigger picture. I want to give a shout out to the Chicago Public Library, who through a grant that they received from the Gates Foundation, worked with IDEO to develop a design thinking toolkit for libraries. They created this great material and they went through the process of introducing this to their staff. We support the library and work closely with them on the deployment of their technology, and public technology, and their location. As we learned about the process they were going through, they also offered to take what they’ve learned and help implement those same methodologies within our department gracious of them. And so I think the idea behind this is to take an investment made in one department and then continue to realize benefits of that investment throughout the city. Now, again, the goal is to then introduce our other departments to these processes as we start to work with them on new products and services and take the approach that we are focused on delivering the best experience for our staff, our residents, our visitors, and our businesses.
Here’s the ten dollar question. 
Would you say design is reinventing government?

DANIELLE: I definitely think it has the capacity to do that. And I think from our perspective, many times, as technologists or as subject matter experts, we think we understand what the solution is right off the bat. And I think it does, especially as humans that are design-focused, it forces us to take a step back and look at the problem we’re trying to solve and find the best way to do that.

I think what I like about the rapid prototyping process and things of that nature is it does allow you to fail without spending many resources and then also, potentially not over-architecting a solution to something. Sometimes the solution is far simpler. I think there are significant opportunities that not only impact the look and feel of our products and the ease of use, but also, just the way we deliver services. So I hope we’re able to continue this momentum within the city to build this culture across agencies.

We have a direction and a system to get there.
Jason Kunesh is Chicago’s first Design Director for digital products and services. Although I met him when I met Danielle, I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at ChiHackNight. I tracked him down to ask him a few questions about his work so far.

It’s interesting to see you are developing the Chicago Design System. What is the advantage of it and how is it evolving? How will it impact external stakeholders creating products with and for the city of Chicago?

JASON: Well I’ll say this. We are starting from scratch. It’s a new thing, at least for us. The city itself has about 200 different applications, and we do have some past styles and past ideas of identity systems, but there’s never been anything city-wide that spanned those 200 apps. And so there’s type of the realization, and you have to be a certain size organization — and a city definitely counts — thousands of employees and many use cases, a lot different software in the field.

From that you get to a point in time where you’re like, “Well, we should probably have some of this stuff down. We shouldn’t have to relearn it, or re-iterate it project-by-project. “What color red are we using? How does the city seal appear?” Things like that. But also stuff that’s more important, like accessibility and usability which are essential to designing for diverse users.

Long story short, we are in the process, albeit early, and we look at this as a collaborative and community-driven process, both inside and outside government. We have a government use case, but also, if you look at how civic tech and civic apps are produced, often times it’s in partnership with nonprofits or other agencies or for-profit companies. There should be some real advantage for them. They should want to like it, too. In other words, it should feel like something that’s easier for them, there should be some consistent benefits baked in, and we think there’s a lot of those.

Even though the city didn’t have this type of this comprehensive design system, there are other ones out there in civic tech. And so, for ours, we did sort of start from zero in a way, we didn’t have a standard.

For readers not familiar with design systems … How does the Chicago Design System evolves from the US Web Design System? What’s similar? What’s different?

JASON: Sure. So, basically, a couple things. Design systems are useful by large organizations. When you see this type of challenge of being able to present a consistent user experience, especially across big or disconnected teams, that’s definitely a federal use case. And that’s why they adopted it. But the things that we get that are great for us is many built-in support for things like mobile web, and figuring out the grid system that works on various devices.

They’ve done significant good work on accessibility, so making sure that the code and the colors and some standards that are put in place work well for everybody is important. And for us, where we type of differ with it, is that over the remainder of 2018 and early on in 2019, you’ll start to see this come out. You’re going to see a different look and feel, one uniquely Chicagoan, from our rich typographic and architectural design history. One that’s definitely forward thinking and looking toward the 21st century.

What we’ve done, then, is adopted the federal standards from 18F and United States Digital Service, USDS. And we took those as a baseline, because those are public domain, so there’s no rights or licenses. It’s free for the city to use. And it’s got significant great stuff there in terms of how to make software accessible and usable and some methods that you would use in sort of design thinking or product-driven approach.

Would you say design is reinventing government?

JASON: I wouldn’t say it’s reinventing –that’s interesting. I struggled with this a lot because I saw that question earlier. On the one hand maybe, but I’d say… It’s not. But what design is reinventing, I think it’s reinventing what it means to be governed, and what it means to be a resident and a participant in city government.

Check out this awesome resource from the Chicago Design System.

It’s all about the user.
I met Eric Michael Vazquez at my first Reimagined Cities, Chicago 2.0 event last spring. I was impressed with his use of user-centered design for the Chicago Office of the City Clerk. I learned that the City Clerk Anna M. Valencia, sees the office as one of the principle connections between city government and the citizens. With the goal of increasing access to timely information to the community, Anna went on a tour of all the wards and got user feedback immediately after election. He mentions in his talks that the Clerk’s office sees the work they produce as being truly collaborative and not a one-way conversation.

I am on LinkedIn everyday and I saw an opportunity to participate in a user test in early August. This was a great way to see human-centered design and the two way conversation in action.

The Takeaway!
Whether you call it reinvention or something else, user-centered design is helping create Chicago 2.0. With the immense amount of data and technology now available, the future of innovation needs design now more than ever. 
I should mention that Chicago was the first city to ever have a Chief Data Officer. Find out more about the data side of Chicago’s design challenges, check out this talk with Tom Schenk Jr. from ChiHackNight #311. I am happy to know that design is at the table and a powerful part of the conversation. I think we are on the right path so I share the quote below with our city seal.

Coming up soon!
If you’ve been reading this series from the beginning you know it all started with Re-imagined Cities: Chicago 2.0. The next event is September 19, I’ll be there for sure. Say hello!

Check out the next Re-imagined Cities: Chicago 2.0.

Until next time…get out there and shake a few hands.
There are many ways to get involved and meet some wonderful people. I met my hero Dick Durbin at a Loyola University event discussing Environmental Policy and the Great Lakes. I got timely information and resources as well. Your representatives are out there so I recommend finding ways to connect. My next article will continue to focus on re-invention but I’ll tell stories about how design is reinventing business.

Be well and remember to design for good, design for humans!
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