The next generation of civic designers

Dana Chisnell
Nov 19, 2014 · 8 min read

Bringing light into the darkness

In the world I work in, it’s about 1998. Think about what that means.

In the late 1990s, the Web was becoming a thing, but large organizations had yet to embrace it much. The back-end systems were moving to client-server from mainframes. And the Dot Com bubble was growing and about to burst a year or so later. Technology was a thing that happened in the basements of enterprises and was very mysterious.

Ok, to say it’s 1998 is actually not entirely fair. It’s more like 2005. Before ubiquitous computing. Before wifi everywhere. Before smart phones.

And this 2005 feeling is actually almost every day in the here and now. Every day that I work in civic design, it feels like I’m entering a time warp. I step through a door at a county office or a city hall or a federal agency, and the light changes. I start in Oz and go back to Kansas.

Fortunately, my memory isn’t erased in this time travel, because a lot has happened since 2005. Because when I enter these places, I feel like I have arrived from the future.

And in the future, design is a beacon that can pull government toward the Now. More than that, we who care about civic design can design services that not only bring government interactions with constituents up to date, but we can help our clients create services based on technologies that are future tolerant.

Walking through those doors of 1998 has a Dark Ages feel about it. But I actually think we’re at least on the front edge of an age of Enlightenment.

There is an opportune moment happening RIGHT NOW and we are fortunate to be designers at This Moment. Because government is ready. Government — the people we work with every day — doesn’t know that what they need is design.

They think that what they need is technology. But technology just comes with the package. Technology is enabling — or can be.

This Enlightenment is fueled by science and technology — like the last one — and open data. It’s built on an open platform called the World Wide Web and it runs on the Internet. It’s amazing.

And we walk around like we own it, this Enlightenment. We — all of us and the people like us who are in love with the Internet and open data and connectivity — we talk like we own this sea change driven by ubiquitous, cheap, fast technology. We are its agents, and it is ours to design.

We are the Incredibles, and we know. We’re pretty religious about it.

We believe we know how to do this and that we know better than anyone else. And we believe that if we just make ourselves known to the people in charge that they will let us do what needs to be done.

We arrive enthusiastic and assertive.

And then we go to work. And we learn why things are the way they are. And often it is for very good reasons that it is hard to do some of the things we think should be done. Policy. Ethics. Pesky laws.

But we do learn. In fact, we have much to learn from our government partners. After all, if the problems were easy to solve, they would have done it without us. Because our partners in civil service are amazing. We don’t know it all. And we don’t know better. We only know different.

We have perspective. And tools.

And so, we come, with our pamphlets and gatherings and proselytizing. We bring with us science and craft, and we preach.

WE believe that we have arrived at this moment to fix things. We have the fire in our bellies to make things simpler, smarter, faster, better, more beautiful. To impose order and logic and reason.

We do the work we do because we believe we have skills and experience and talents to offer that other people don’t have. And we believe that because we have these attributes we will solve important problems the way they should be solved. Collectively, we have a bit of a Savior Complex as we bring Light into the Darkness.

We are righteous.

Flourishing through purpose

I hear the complaint all the time that there are no designers working in government. I used to think that, too. But I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. Government is actually loaded with designers. There are hundreds of thousands of designers in government.

I want to introduce you to some of them so that when you encounter people like these, you’ll be able to see that there are actually a lot of kindred spirits all around you in government.

Marnie cut a two-page letter down to 3 paragraphs.

She’s worked for San Mateo County for 20 years. She takes calls from people asking that their property assessments be reviewed because their house value is less than what they paid for it. Marnie had to send a letter to property owners. The first version she got from the attorney’s office was 2 pages, densely filled with negative, passive wording. She turned it around after reading a couple of articles about plain language and some coaching from a local expert. Marnie is a program manager. She started a program to review assessments. She’s a civil servant, and she’s a designer.

Matt redesigned a form.

The state legislature passed a new law. The new law required gathering new information from constituents, but constituents also had to prove they were who they said they were on the form. There was text in the legislation that could be used on a new form for collecting this information, but Matt didn’t want to do this the same way it had always been done. He knew that if they did that, it would mean adding help to explain the form to people, either as they filled it out or after the office got the forms and would have to call the constituent to correct mistakes. And so, using a couple of examples as templates, and guidelines he had practiced in a workshop. Matt tried his hand at designing this form. Matt is a lawyer and a career civil servant. He’s a deputy secretary of state, and he’s a designer.

Pete designed a website.

First, there were brochures, flyers, and press releases. But then Pete drew the short straw to learn enough HTML to create a basic website for his city. He realized in the first hour that he should have been a coder all along, and went on to learn how to program software in a half dozen languages and tools. But he was still drawn to communications, even though his background was in environmental science. When his office needed a new website, he took a couple of classes on information architecture and content strategy, read some books, and got feedback from a designer on contract for another department. Pete is a senior advisor to a governor in a large, southern state. Pete is a designer.

Meagan moderated a usability test and helped her team interpret their insights.

If it has geographic data, Meagan is there. She’s drawn more district lines for more purposes than the average GIS nerd, but she loves it. She just loves wallowing around in data, finding trends and patterns, finding significance in numbers. Her team regularly conducts focus groups. But when it came time to rework a web app that her team had jammed together in about a month, she worked with her team to design and run a usability test. Even though the analytics that she loved could tell them some of what was happening, they didn’t know why. When it came time to moderate the sessions with users, Meagan was masterful. Meagan is the head of IT for a medium sized city in the Midwest, and she’s a designer.

And so, we are wrong. We’re NOT here to fix things. To make things simple and beautiful. We are not here to save government by opening up data or holding hackathons or holding camps on Saturdays.

We are here to lead by example. We are here to teach. We teach by doing and by modeling behavior. One project at a time.

Because what’s happening is that everyone who touches any part of it designs it.

Government is nothing if not a massive, continuous service design project. Everyday, something happens to change the experience someone is having with her government. A law is passed. A policy implemented. A service supplied — or taken away. Budgets are expanded or contracted or reallocated. Everyone in government is designing the civic experience. Including the constituent.


And so, I give you one more story.

Bill was an older guy, though at first glance it was impossible to tell just how old he was. In my head, I was guessing around 70. He walked with a limp, and his right arm swung differently from his left. He had on a snappy brown leather blazer and wore a big, toothy smile. He was cheerful and flirty.

We were at the Berkeley public library and we met because Bill was in a study we were doing about information about voting and elections published by California counties. I asked Bill what questions he had about the upcoming primary election. He said he didn’t know where to start. He never voted, he said. “I have been incarcerated, ma’am,” Bill said.

“Well, okay,” I said, trying to seem unfazed. “You know there’s an election coming up, right?” “Yes, ma’am.”

“Let’s have a look at this booklet. Please go through and mark up anything that you find confusing, or unclear, or that you think someone else might have a hard time with.” I gave him a pink highlighter for doing that. “I’d also like you to mark up anything that is especially helpful or interesting.” I gave him a green highlighter. “Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am. I have a lot of trouble reading, you know. I’m only just learning. and it takes me a lot of time.” I said, “that’s fine. I’ve got all morning. We can spend it together going through this booklet or talking about other things.” So he started. And one of the first things he encountered that he liked was the Voter’s Bill of Rights. This was a revelation to him. Especially the part that said he could vote. Even though he’d been in prison.

“Ma’am, is this document real? Is it true that I can vote even though I’ve been incarcerated?” Yes. “How do I get to do that?” You just register to vote. You can do it online here today, if you want. “That’s amazing! I can do that!” He was energized now to look through the rest of the booklet, empowered. We had a great session. He struggled through most of the 24-page booklet and gave us incredibly valuable feedback. It did take a long time.

When Bill finished, and I’d asked all my questions, he wanted to know how to register to vote. My partner from the League of Women Voters said, “Come over here, and I’ll help you.” She pulled up the online voter registration on the Secretary of State’s website on her computer, and in 2 minutes, Bill was registered to vote. He practically floated out of the room as he shook hands with everyone on his way out.

Bill was 56 years old. He had spent 40 years in prison. And now he could vote.

THIS is why we do this work.

Let us work on solving problems

I have a favor to ask. I ask you to stop asking how to get people in government (or any organization) to learn about design. I ask you to, instead, start thinking about how to solve problems.

Because how we will get this work done is by being with “non-designers” and bringing them with us. By giving skills and making chances to practice to the people we work with. And when we go, we need to leave them with confidence so they can make government better in new ways without us. Because there are not enough of us.

We think we are here to design government. We’re not. We’re here to help government understand that IT is designing the civic experience.

There is empowerment in that. There is innovation in that.

With our help, the people who work in government will be the next wave of civic designers, driving the next Enlightenment.

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