Dreams for Design and Digital in Government

Reflections on hiring innovative teams, building capacity, and improving services

Ariel Kennan
Apr 27, 2018 · 13 min read
NYC Opportunity Design and Product Team Members

Through my fellowship year with Code for America, working alongside the Mayor’s Offices in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, I saw the potential for using design and digital best practices inside of government. The following year, I was lucky to get the opportunity to join the New York City Mayor’s Office to do just that.

Learning the Enterprise

Much of my first year was learning the “enterprise” of NYC government, including discovering the working norms, learning policies and procedures, and forming relationships with colleagues. At times it felt like I was doing a lot of talking about how things could change while providing some “quick wins” to prove the value of design. In due time, I was able to start laying out a deeper strategy and hiring additional people to join me. This foundation of how the organization was working has also been incredibly helpful in knowing where we can make change and how to get things done within the lines.

Team

The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity for short) was formed in 2017 out of what had been different, distinct units. When I first started in 2014, the team that I was on looked drastically different. As we have evolved over the years and combined groups, we’ve added designers, product managers, and developers experienced in agile and other approaches that had been previously largely absent from government. The teams that I built focus on product and design.

NYC Opportunity team members participating in a design pin-up to give collaborative feedback on a prototype.

The Product team conducts user research, creates user experiences, and works closely with the internal and vendor technology teams to prototype, develop, and maintain evolving digital tools. The team helps NYC Opportunity and our agency partners translate anti-poverty program and policy goals into digital strategies. The team also helps define how the City of New York uses a modern, agile and user-centric approach to technology products, including offering product management best practices.

The Design team is versed in design tools, experienced in developing in-person and digital services, and focused on addressing poverty-related challenges. The team applies design methodologies to NYC Opportunity’s work, including how the Office develops and manages our programs and digital products. The team also staffs NYC Opportunity’s Service Design Studio which works across agencies to advance the City’s use of human-centered design methods. The Design team, including the Studio, partners with agencies to engage with residents and those who deliver services so that their insights can shape new and existing programs. The team conducts research, develops documentation, offers service enhancements, creates user experiences, and works closely with internal and external colleagues to prototype, develop, and set ongoing strategy for services.

In addition to recruiting and hiring full time staff, I established our apprenticeship program to expose undergraduate, graduate, and recently graduated students to doing product and design work inside government and allow us to scale our practice.

NYC Opportunity apprentices, team at the Studio launch, and hosting a cross-team workshop.

Hiring at first was incredibly challenging, as we didn’t have modern work to show, and the traditional government job channels weren’t reaching the people we were looking for. My prototype of a recruiting site has now been iterated many times over, and we’re finding the right candidates who are enthusiastic about building upon the work we’ve done so far. I marvel at how things have changed as I see the team working together, tackling challenges, and bringing their creativity and kindness to all of their endeavors.

Build With NYC recruiting site hosted on Github Pages.

I’ve also worked closely with our leadership team on the design of our organization itself. What formed out of multiple offices established in the prior administration, has blossomed into a multidisciplinary team of professionals at the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity that use evidence and innovation to reduce poverty and increase equity.

I will forever be thankful to Matt Klein for giving me the opportunity to work inside NYC government and for the leadership and partnership he’s provided along the way. He speaks about this work with eloquence and passion unlike anyone else. He has provided cover when the team has needed it, pitched our vision, and also stood back and let things flow. A special thanks also to Carson Hicks, NYC Opportunity’s Deputy Executive Director, who has been an expert guide at navigating government and helping to translate design to the public sector.

Delivering on Change

Agencies are now approaching our office wanting to know how we’re delivering so that they replicate the same methods, both design and digital, inside their own organization. I’m sharing a few of my favorite, and most influential, projects.

Service Design

HOME-STAT, the the most comprehensive street homeless outreach program in the nation, partners existing homeless response and prevention programs with new innovations designed to better identify, engage, and transition homeless New Yorkers to appropriate services and, ultimately, permanent housing. Our goal was to understand the complete journey of street homeless New Yorkers from living on the street to being permanently housed, to identify what barriers they and their service providers face, and to create enhancements to improve end-to-end service delivery. Our team’s work influenced service enhancements, policy, performance management, and technology through the journey map and Stakeholder Research Insights Report. HOME-STAT has also served as a pivotal example of delivering service design that resonates with both internal and external audiences.

The HOME-STAT journey map became a document of shared understanding of end-to-end service delivery.

We worked on the City’s $10 million initiative to bring free broadband service to five New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing developments, starting with Queensbridge Houses. The Studio engaged Queensbridge residents, nonprofit providers, and City agency staff in the research and prototype testing process to arrive at solutions for connecting and logging in, and other aspects of the service, including Queensbridge Connected.

Product Portfolio

Our public-facing product portfolio includes ACCESS NYC, Growing Up NYC, and Generation NYC, all of which are powered by the Benefits & Programs API. Together these products work to improve the lives of low-income New Yorkers and help connect residents to benefits, programs and resources. Read more about how we’re building great products inside government.

ACCESS NYC is an online public screening tool that New Yorkers can use to determine their eligibility for city, state, and federal health and human service benefit programs. We redesigned it starting in the summer of 2016 through an iterative prototyping process that engaged residents, social workers, case managers, and government agency staff. The new design and core user experience were created in-house, and information about each benefit was standardized. ACCESS NYC relaunched in March 2017 with a simplified 10-step eligibility screening process, plain-language program information, content in seven (now 11) languages, a location finder, and an accessible, mobile-responsive design. ACCESS NYC is fully accessible under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and is the City’s first website to be fully compliant under Local Law 30, which requires documents and services distributed to the public by City agencies be made available in 11 languages. The website is open source and the code is available on Github. ACCESS NYC was recognized at “The Best of New York 2017” at the New York Digital Government Summit in Albany, NY and received an award for “Best Application Serving the Public.” ACCESS NYC was the project I originally joined the City to focus on. It was not the first thing I ended up delivering, and I was thankful to have deeper context to set it up for success. We also recently expanded the eligibility screener with the Public Engagement Unit to bring comprehensive and streamlined benefits screening and enrollment to New Yorkers.

Read more in the ACCESS NYC Case Studies.

NYC Opportunity designer testing an ACCESS NYC prototype with a resident.

Growing Up NYC is a first of its kind mobile-first resource that connects families to City and community benefits and resources. Launched in 2016 in partnership with the NYC Children’s Cabinet, Growing Up NYC was built entirely in collaboration with residents. It is a leading example of government employing user-centered, iterative design to create a digital product. Through Growing Up NYC, we partner with numerous government agencies and community organizations to get their resources, which are not always easily accessible and might have gone unused, into the hands of City residents. Following the success of Growing Up NYC, we built a companion website for teens and young adults, who as they became more independent would benefit from more accessible information. More than 100 young people representing a cross-section of New Yorkers, including LGBTQI youth, co-designed Generation NYC. Our partners at Blue State Digital provided design and website development services. Growing Up NYC was recognized at “The Best of New York City 2017 Awards” at the NYC Technology Forum in Brooklyn, NY and received the award for “Best External Application.”

Launch of Generation NYC at BAM
Benefits & Programs API categories

Working with and simplifying complex data and information to improve access to services has been a core component to our work. For example, the Benefits and Programs API, a dataset and data standard that includes benefit, program, and resource information on health and human services available to New York City residents, is a first of its kind development. The API feeds ACCESS NYC, Growing Up NYC and is available on the NYC Open Data Portal. The content is managed in a central content management system, collaborated on with our agency partners, and changes are pushed out immediately. This is quite a transition from when I first started and content was managed in Word documents and changing a single word on ACCESS NYC required a developer and a two-month release cycle.

This year the team will be opening the rules engine that powers the ACCESS NYC eligibility screener. The rules engine determines eligibility for 31 city, state, and federal programs based on information provided about a household. This will allow the eligibility logic to be extended for use by others in internal and external applications, and create an open data standard for public benefits eligibility.

NYC Opportunity Product team shadowing the Public Engagement Unit.

Seeding and Scaling New Ways of Working

While delivering early projects, we started to see adoption of many of our ways of working with our colleagues — from using pin up boards, to rapid research, to facilitating meetings with giant sticky pads. With an initial round of support from our partners at Citi Community Development, we were able to run a design-informed process to conduct interviews with NYC government colleagues and from other city, state and federal agencies and social impact design firms to inform the creation of documented tactics and our team strategy.

Tactics from the Service Design Studio

The Service Design Studio, launched in 2017 with support from founding partner Citi Community Development and managed in coordination with the Mayor’s Fund, is spreading valuable methodologies that are often under-utilized in government and serving as a resource to help the City further engage with residents and those who deliver services so that their insights can shape new and existing programs.

Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics book

The Studio produces Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics as a website, book and toolkit and serves as an introduction to service design for public servants. It’s a set of practical ways to include design methods in the enhancement and creation of public services. Framing our process in this accessible format has made it approachable for our colleagues, and it is also how we’re framing and scoping our project engagements.

Project plan based on the design tactics

The Studio has also been instrumental in deepening City engagement with the professional design sector. The Mayor’s Office and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication (DOITT) have developed Government x Design Citywide Design Services, which will allow City agencies to more easily create and deliver effective, efficient, and equitable public services through pre-qualified vendors in digital design, communication design, service design, and a comprehensive category that includes all three disciplines.

The Studio is seeing tremendous demand and success, including: hosting over 70 office hours, reaching over 180 public servants in the first six months, and receiving 15 excellent proposals for the Designing for Opportunity Open Call for Partnerships, inviting all NYC government agencies and offices to propose how a service design process could help them address poverty-related challenges. The quality of the proposals, for an opportunity that would have sounded unusual a few years ago, was impressive and shows the growing maturity of the appeal of design inside NYC government.

Office Hour attendees from government agencies and nonprofits.

Today we announced the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Division of Prevention Services as the winner of the “Designing for Opportunity” partnership. ACS will have the unique opportunity to consult with the Service Design Studio to provide community members and families with the opportunity to shape the prevention services offered by the agency. The ACS project aims to increase the number of families who voluntarily seek services and prevent children from entering foster care. The scale of this service is vast, serving over 44,000 children annually, and also impacts multiple generations of New Yorkers who are often experiencing poverty. Our work over the years has built towards deep collaboration with agency partners to engage New Yorkers on some of the hardest poverty-based challenges. I’m honored that ACS sees the potential of working with the Studio, and look forward to following this work as it progresses.

Studio and ACS team members planning field research.

Dreams for the Future

The teams will continue to carry the torch for our mission to improve effectiveness and accessibility of services. They are working on hard challenges, deeply embedded with fellow public servants, and delivering real change for New Yorkers.

There are small pockets of this way of working across the City, but it needs to be a broader, coordinated effort to truly transform how New Yorkers access and interact with services online.

The Service Design Studio has started to show the possibilities, and will be sharing publicly the results of an independent evaluation that is has commissioned to examine how design can affect improved outcomes. Many public servants are already picking up these tools and adding them to their toolbox. My dream is for there to be more professional designers throughout City agencies and offices.

A note for my fellow designers, developers, and product managers — please consider a stint in government! Your skills are needed, and there are few other places that you can see the difference you are making at scale.

Next Chapter

I’m incredibly proud of the progress we’ve accomplished over the past four years — launching the Service Design Studio, bringing new methods and talent in-house, and increasing access to services through digital products and enhancing in-person service delivery for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. We’ve also clearly inspired our fellow public servants who are bringing some of the hardest challenges of 21st century government to our table as partners, and asking us to apply our skills that had been absent just a few years ago.

As I head to Sidewalk Labs as Director of Civic Innovation, I’ll be taking this pioneering work to an international level, forever grateful for my time leading and building with the Design and Product teams at NYC Opportunity. Good luck to my amazing teams and colleagues, you have all inspired me so much!

Thank You

Design and Product team members wearing Growing Up NYC gear.

A special thanks to Matt Klein, Carson Hicks, Tayyab Walker, Liz Kadernauth, Haiyan Sui, and Laura Negrón who have been instrumental leaders and partners in this work.

Thank you to past and present Product and Design team members: Darnell Sessoms, Song Hia, Hilina Mohammed, Devon Hirth, Kimberly Peng, Ashley Cortez, Laura Kerry, Marilyn Patterson, Mari Nakano, Emily Herrick, Tim Reitzes, Caroline Bauer, Leonore Snoek, Mai Kobori, Chisun Rees, Genevieve Gaudet, and Sarah Lidgus.

Thank you to past and present apprentices: Cameron Hanson, Makaela Stephens, Shannon Holloway, Ankita Roy, Christopher Lopez, Justina Villanueva, Alisha Austin, Kate Meizner, Martin Romero, Steffany Tran, Victor Tran, Rutvi Gupta, Umila Singh, Jeff Park, Shaquille Williams, Jaycee Holmes, Patrick Presto, Nichole Aquino, Elizabeth Ferguson, and Max Pekarsky.

Thank you to the many colleagues and partners who I’ve had the honor to work with while at the Mayor’s Office.

NYC Opportunity

News from the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity

Ariel Kennan

Written by

Director of Civic Innovation @SidewalkLabs. Formerly @NYCMayorsOffice @NYCOpportunity @codeforamerica. Passionate about people-centered public services.

NYC Opportunity

News from the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity