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Building Better Government: Residents define accessibility in services

Annie Szotkowski
Sep 4, 2019 · 3 min read

Services may be unique, but delivery isn’t

For the last five years, Sarah Rodriguez analyzed the way local and federal governments deliver services. How they’re funded, staffed, designed, advertised, policy implications, what technology is used, and how these factors intertwine and define how a service is delivered. As a community organizer, a planner, and finally, a designer, she studied these factors in an attempt to bridge the gap between systems and individuals. And while governments offer diverse services, the way they’re delivered is limited and inaccessible for thousands of residents.

Earlier this year Sarah was hired to catalog services at the City of Austin and determine their digital maturity (i.e. how internet-era technology meets the needs of residents and city employees). The goal was to understand the digital landscape of departments and identify services for digitization, priorities which stemmed from a 2017 city website audit that found no citywide strategy for offering services online. The services that were online did not meet accessibility guidelines set forth by organizations like W3C, making them inaccessible to individuals with vision impairments. Our office, the Office of Design and Delivery (ODD), has begun addressing this issue by building a city website that puts residents at the center, creating more resident-friendly content and making services more resident-centered.

She realized early on the limitations of digitization. While digitization can make services more accessible for some it would not provide access for all, especially those already marginalized by existing city processes. Instead, it became necessary to look holistically at how services were delivered by identifying where people experience barriers. To this end, our team started building an accessibility framework that considers residents’ experiences when entering into and receiving services.

What is accessibility? A question only residents can answer

But defining accessibility, a broad term with legal implications, is difficult. We believe accessibility is achieved when one’s experience does not define or determine the availability, outcome, or ability to access and receive services. But that still doesn’t help us understand why services are inaccessible for residents.

Successful services must, first and foremost, relate to an individual’s needs. Barriers occur when the service delivery does not align with a person’s situation or experience. For example, requiring payment in the form of a credit card excludes individuals who are unbanked and unable to get access to credit, or only providing appointments by phone when there are thousands of residents who have hearing and speech disabilities. The way we design and deliver our services is composed of multiple choices, intentional or not. Relying solely on our own perceptions to dictate how we design and deliver service excludes those who have different experiences and situations. But we can redesign services, but to be impactful we need residents to help us understand how and where we should improve.

Where we fall short on Accessibility (a side note)

Early on it became clear that access does not necessarily precede equity or justice. While co-creation to improve access builds a path towards inclusion, building and delivering just services with equitable outcomes requires systematic change. It requires community-led work. As city employees we have a civic and legal responsibility to support, advocate, and provide access. We need to start by identifying our own failures and weaknesses and dismantling inaccessible processes.

Our team also recognizes that even with our internal diversity, we have no experience in several areas. I won’t pretend or declare I know what it’s like living with a vision impairment or to be unbanked. Instead, we want the community to lead our work, fosters relationships, and teach us how to better advocate.

Starting the co-creation process with residents

It’s vital that people with lived experience are involved in the co-creation process, leading the effort to design better services. To that end, our team is creating a user journey framework to structure feedback from residents to identify barriers in services. See our initial framework and research.

We will partner with community members in the upcoming weeks to design a more comprehensive framework and share insights about the process in a follow-up article.

Feedback is the process of getting things less wrong. So we’d love yours! Continue the conversation and start improving accessibility at the City of Austin by attending our workshop at Cepeda Library on September 12 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. RSVP here.

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