Civic Lab Prototyping

Crafting a new feedback system for democracy

Peter Jacobson
Code for Aotearoa


Do you know how your local government makes decisions?

Do you think your local government makes good decisions for your city?

Do you know how you can have input on local government decisions?

Most Wellingtonians answer “no” to these questions.

Gabby and I are web developers with Code for Aotearoa, working with Wellington City Council to explore their problems and build solutions.

Here’s how.

Wellington City Council problems and solutions

A month of qualitative research with council staff and citizens highlighted thirty six problems and solutions.

Problems and solutions found after a month in council, ranked by estimated effectiveness

Important to note that these are only the problems and ideas surfaced from a month of 1.5 Full Time Equivalent work. We’ve only talked to a fraction of people in the organisation and the public.

The small sample has been relatively diverse, and there is enough data and common sense to make these top problems and ideas worthy of more exploration.

With more time it would be great to continue the discovery process, and better yet help set up a system for continuous problem and idea discovery and tracking — this IS something currently being worked on in Wellington City Council.

How did we surface the problems and opportunities?

We communicated that Code for Aotearoa is an opportunity for everyone to collaborate on making the council even better: Gabby and I are facilitators and participants of this collaboration.

We opened the Code for Aotearoa opportunity to the the public at the Open Source // Open Society conference.

We were shown round the many varied places that Wellington City Council manages, to get a perspective on the diverse roles council plays.

We were introduced to a diverse range of staff across the organisation, by lovely people from the Chief Executives Office — giving us and our work credibility, and showing that it is worth people taking the time to work with us.

Discussion about Wellington City Council at Open Source // Open Society Conference (; Being shown the wide variety of services Council provides — cemeteries, parks...
A cookie for your thoughts — Asking folk throughout the council to answer the questions: “What is Wellington City Council doing really well?”, “What does Wellington City Council most need to improve?” and “What is your vision for council?”
Meeting with people throughout the council — Community Engagement, Digital Team, Councillors, Democratic services, Innovation team, the CEO, Business Transformation lead…
Creating a fun, accessible space for public to talk about council

Project selection

At the end of our month of discovery, we chose a small group of people with great insight into the whole of council to help us select a project to focus on. We wrote out the 36 projects onto white post-it notes, and each of our three advisors rated each out of 5, where:

  • 1=Gabby & Pete unlikely to effect positive change with this project,
  • 5=Gabby & Pete are likely to effect positive change with this project

We then ordered the projects by total score:

Top scoring projects — total score in blue circle

Civic Lab was chosen as our focus for our remaining 7 weeks.

The many worthwhile problems and opportunities we don’t have resource to work on now are currently living in a spreadsheet, with enough information attached to each for other people to work on them. We will explore how to best share this with council so they can be easily found and actioned.

The civic lab was chosen as it tackles two major problems for the council:

  1. The majority of citizens don’t really understand what the council does or how it works.
  2. The internal silos that still exist within council reduce efficiency and results in some missed opportunities.

Feedback is the root of these two problems.

Why do we need better feedback?

Internally, Wellington City Council has vastly improved staff culture and communication over the last two-three years. Despite this, different parts of Council don’t always communicate. In the past this has lead to reduced efficiency and missed opportunities for improved service to Wellingtonians. There have also been incidents where Council customers have been given conflicting messages, resulting in a poor experience.

Feedback internally about the effects of poor communication is a powerful tool to improve communication.

Externally, Wellington City Council still has a limited range of ways for citizens to contribute to decision making, and these are inaccessible to many and not well know about.

Only 46% of Wellington residents who responded understand how they can have input in Council decision-making.

From the 2016 Wellington City Residents Monitoring Survey

Most Wellingtonians don’t understand or trust decision-making at Wellington City Council.

Feedback to the council from citizens about their understanding, ideas and frustrations can help the council improve their systems and communication to improve the citizen experience and perception of council.

Civic Lab: Part of the solution

We’ve run the first prototype, which proved the Civic Lab was effective at engaging people throughout society and council.

First Civic Lab prototype

After we chose the Civic Lab as our focus, we did a post-it note session to surface as many opportunities and risks as possible in a short amount of time.

Brainstorming Civic Lab opportunities and threats

Each person read out the opportunities and risks they saw, we grouped the post-it with other similar ones. You can see below that there are many groups — this shows the large diversity of opportunities and risks of the Civic Lab tool.

Grouping opportunities and threats. You can see many islands — there is a diverse range of opportunities and risks for this tool

Next steps for the Civic Lab

We’re employing the Agile project management methodology to fail fast, learn fast, and quickly build a useful tool.

We’ve given ourselves five days to learn from our first prototype, design the next iteration and deliver it. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good enough to learn and better understand the users to make the next iteration even better

From our initial prototype, we’ve recognised many threats and opportunities we’ll be mitigating and designing for in our next iteration.

Some of the Threats

  • It becomes another short, shallow, meaningless consultation
  • Council teams get defensive and don’t action feedback
  • Seems too “jolly” to be useful, not seen as an effective tool
  • Lab not staffed with adequate quality or continuity
  • More un-analysed data for council teams that they don’t know what to do with
  • Citizen and council staff input to lab fails to influence council
  • Feedback doesn’t accord with council staff world view, so fobbed off
  • Not taken seriously inside the council
  • Unrealistic expectations from participants in lab about the influence and impact of their feedback
  • Captured by people with strong views talking AT other people
  • Only loudest voices heard
  • Lab empty is de-energising
  • Another failed engagement attempt further disengages public

Some of the Opportunities

  • Help awesome libraries stay relevant
  • Support citizenship
  • Space to co-create solutions with citizens
  • Minimum Viable Product is achievable in 2 months (can iterate quickly)
  • Help millennials understand the awesome work and opportunity in working with councils, thus bring great young people and make government better
  • A space for other ideas and experiments
  • Cool name
  • A place for diverse discussion and human connection
  • Action people’s ideas without a big, slow formal consultation having to be created
  • People can engage on their terms
  • A community space between councils and individuals
  • Promotes genuine engagement
  • Provide face-to-face user engagement experience for council staff
  • Space for real-time feedback on internal projects
  • Give citizens a chance to talk with influential people within the operations side of council, not just governance through councillors.
  • Vehicle for 2 way communication, for council and citizens to better understand each other
  • A place for user testing
  • Could aide councillors to connect with their communities and with council
  • Change engagement to an ongoing conversation with changing topics

Working with other Council Teams

The “Customer strategy” team within the Business Transformation Team have expressed a lot of interest in this project — so we’ve invited them to co-design the next iterations with us.

Nadia McGregor is working as a service designer at Wellington City Council. Most other projects she’s working with in council are iterating slowly. She’s enjoying working with us to develop this Civic Lab — with our fast iterations and high user engagement she can work more effectively as a service designer. So great to have another wonderful person working with us! And she’s practical too…

Nadia taping down the lab grass

We’ll report back after our next iteration.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts — leave them in the comments below, or email me at

Click through to Code for Aotearoa and the Wellington City Council Pilot to learn more about the program.