Building Best Practices in Civic Tech

There are a lot of exciting things going on within the Civic Tech community. Digital teams across cities, states, and even countries are working hard to make their services accessible to their visitors and residents. Each municipality has their own way of doing things and thankfully they’ve been happy to share what they’ve learned with us.

Each team we spoke to mentioned the need for a unified voice for the city, and a set of digital standards for employees to use. This helped reaffirm that introducing service-oriented language was a good idea, but we knew we needed to keep going.

We saw a need to standardize the voice for the City of Austin employees, start breaking down the silos that can exist in government, and make things easier- not only for our employees, but for residents and visitors. If a resident doesn’t have to de-code a lot of “city-speak” to get to the service they need, then we’re doing our jobs! In other words, we knew we needed to set a standard for civic tech best practices.

After talking with several City employees, we learned that they needed a resource to help set the overall voice and tone of digital content, and also answer any questions they might have about writing in plain language.

Filling Knowledge Gaps

We wanted to fill any knowledge gaps that might exist, like why it’s important to write below an 8th grade reading level or why PDFs do more harm than good for residents. To do this, we took our time building a resource for the people doing the writing: Our Digital Services Style Guide. In it, we covered accessibility points, like making sure the color contrast is readable and the right way to add alt-text to make images visible to screen-reading technology. We also wrote about why using jargon, acronyms, and the ever-present frequently asked question page (FAQs as they’re most commonly known) cause confusion for the resident.

Then we started the conversation about managing existing pages, instead of just adding pages. This means archiving and unpublishing content as it becomes irrelevant (or outdated) to City of Austin residents and visitors. This is probably our biggest opportunity because there are around 11,000 live web pages (and 10,000 PDFs), but we weren’t sure how to get City of Austin employees to see why this is important. That’s where the Funshops came in.

How the Funshop came to be:

The more we talked about the style guide, the more we felt it was important to train content authors and publishers on using it- consistently. But we didn’t want another dreaded training workshop. Because we love this stuff, because we get excited by good content, because we want to help residents, we thought: Hey! We think this is fun- how might we get everyone else to think it’s fun too? The answer was clear: A helpful workshop, but with a heavy dose of fun.

A funshop.

As we started drafting the first Funshop, it became pretty clear that this isn’t just a way to help Austin residents and visitors. It’s also an answer to the accessibility challenges, civic participation and accountability that we’ve experienced at the city. And probably the most engaging way to share civic tech best practices with our employees. We have a really great opportunity to fill those knowledge gaps with fun and interactive sessions, and setting guidelines for how to write for populations who truly need city services.

What’s in our Funshop?

An overview of each Funshop session

Testing the Funshop

Before we officially rolled out the Funshops, we needed to know they were effective. We did A/B testing with two groups: We walked the first group (A) through the Style Guide and answered any questions they had. We didn’t include any interactive activities.

The second group (B) received the full Funshop- all interactive goodness of it!

Both groups took a quiz before the Funshop, directly after, and then again two-weeks later. We found that our hunch was right- the employees who took the Funshop retained more knowledge about what was in the style guide than those in Group A.

We also learned that an interactive session keeps employees engaged and attentive, and more likely to remember the best practices for our city’s digital content long after they finish the Funshop. This may not be news to anyone, however it’s important to note. The more engaged your training sessions are, the more likely people will be to attend and spread the word.

What’s next?

We hosted our first official Funshop with Austin Resource Recovery employees who are (or will be) responsible for creating and managing digital content about the services they offer. We’re receiving great feedback that we will use to refine Funshop I. Funshop II will be held early in 2018, and the third Funshop will follow a few weeks later.

Because we’re trying to help make life easier for employees too, we wanted to give them a little incentive to attend the Funshops. We’re working on providing continued learning credits, or hours, to the employees who attend. I’m really excited to implement this, because it adds more weight to what we’re doing.

We know it’s important to have the entire team on the same page, so we’re designing an abbreviated Funshop for the executives to participate in. We recognize that their time is valuable, but so is that of our residents, which is why we’re all here. We will constantly put our residents first in all that we do. It’s not just one of our values, it’s a best practice.