Civic Design: UX in the Public Sector
The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, The Rosenfeld Review. In this episode, Lou speaks with Kara Kane, head of profession for design at GDS, and one of the curators of the 2022 Civic Design Conference. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
[Lou] I’m here with Kara Kane, one of the curators for the civic design community and the upcoming conference that Rosenfeld Media hosts November 16th — 18th. Kara, what are you doing now for the UK government digital service? You are the community person for the entire design organization, right?
[Kara] Yes. I was the community lead for user-centric design in government at the government digital service. I took some time off and am shortly returning next month as the head of profession for design at GDS (Government Digital Service).
[Lou] What’s the head of profession role involve?
[Kara] Head of profession will involve the community inside GDS, the community of about 50 designers. It’s also looking at design culture and design capability. So do the people in the organization have the skills and experience they need to do their job? And is the organization using design in the best way?
[Lou] You’ve been working with UK Government Digital Service for around 5–6 years. Was that always doing community work?
[Kara] So, the first four years I worked there, I worked with a team called the User Center Design Communities Team. We oversaw communities of practice for all of the UK government in design. So helping people across different departments learn and share from each other and work together to have more consistency and decrease duplication across government services.
[Lou] That’s fantastic. I’m so impressed that five years ago, there was such a role. How did that come to be? Where was the impetus to have a role in planning for this in the design and accessibility organizations?
[Kara] It really was very grassroots and bottom-up. When GDS was formed, a lot of the work was happening in exemplars, which was people from GDS being embedded in teams in other departments. Those people in those teams and departments realized that training and upskilling were needed. So they would go out and create material and then start running that. Then in 2013, there was a mailing list set up for digital designers in government for people to start talking. It was based on these kinds of like organic needs of people working in design and government at the time. Then I was brought in to try and add more structure and support because unless you have people hired to do the work, a lot of people are doing it off the side of their desk, and it takes a lot of time. It’s great that people have now realized that you need people in the role of community manager or community support to support these communities and help them grow.
[Lou] You said that the designers were the exemplar. Did part of the impetus here come from those people feeling a little lonely being the only designer?
[Kara] Yes, definitely. And that’s still the case as the kind of maturity of design across government is really varied. Five years ago, there might have been one designer in a multidisciplinary team. That’s still the case today, so the communities are really about helping everyone feel supported and having a place to go to ask questions, get advice, see what patterns they should be using, and see what standards they have to meet. It really helps people feel less alone in the challenges that they have.
[Lou] So, in your previous role, what infrastructure have you had to pull together? What needs to be in place for these distributed designers to actually work together, collaborate, and function as a community?
[Kara] I really think that community leadership is needed. In GDS, we had the head of design who was a great figurehead for the community to bring people together and inspire them. Now, there are more and more heads of design using research and content design. So those people within their departments are leaders of their smaller communities of practice that feed into this wider cross-government community. And I think those people are so important to help guide people, but also give them the permission to join and spend time doing community-type activities. In my previous role as the community lead, a lot of what we were doing was setting up events, remote meetings, and training. We ran 11 courses at the height of our training. And just doing a lot of linking up, as well. I think the importance of linking things up and connecting people is something I see as being really important and often forgotten about. So, it was a lot of figuring out what kind of relationship-building and collaboration-building things we could do.
[Lou] Are you at the point where you are starting to recruit stakeholders into the work you’re doing in community?
[Kara] I think one of the hardest things about the work was getting to that level of buy-in. I found that people at more senior levels often didn’t understand the value of communities of practice. Part of that is, especially in UK government, the more senior you get, the more generalist you have to be. So it’s quite hard for people to think about specialist communities when that’s not something they may have been a part of for the last ten years of their career. It’s very hard to show the value because whatever output of value is monetary could be several times removed from the activity that you’re doing.
We always talked about using it more as an internal tool, and not sharing those kinds of results publicly. So I think the value in that kind of USD maturity framework is for the conversations that can happen while you’re going through the exercise of looking at where you sit and then using that internally to say, “go to your senior stakeholder and show them these are the areas where we need more support or we need more buy-in or people with skills and experience to deliver on the outcomes that they’re asking for.”
[Lou] Are there actual metrics for communities of practice?
[Kara] Yeah, so in my new role as head of profession, which involves community, that involves things around kind of jobs, frameworks, career paths, and recruitment. It’s about getting these other bits that an organization values and joining that up with the community work. For GDS, that’s how these roles have been funded. My UCD communities teamwork was shut down in the early pandemic, 2020. So that team was cut, and we realized we hadn’t done enough work to show the internal organization the value. All of our work was very outward-facing. I think it’s a really good sign that this new role that I’m going into has been created. But it’s interesting to look at the framing of it with that kind of professional lens.
[Lou] Is there a cultural difference between people working in the public sector doing some form of user experience design or research vs. those working in the private sector?
[Kara] I think there’s potentially more appetite to collaborate and learn from each other. Especially if you look at government services across states or in the UK across councils, you have a lot of the same services that you’re delivering. There’s a lot of value for people working on the same thing in one state versus another state to say, “how are you doing this thing? And I’ve had this challenge. Have you had this too? What approaches are you taking? How are you finding people to recruit?” There’s so much value in having those conversations rather than trying to figure it all out on your own. I think the challenge is finding the people with the specific things that you are trying to also work on because it’s such a wide range of people. Especially when you’re going cross-state or internationally, there are so many different variations of what people are working on.
[Lou] You are one of the three curators, along with Ariel Kennon and Sarah Brooks, who have been designing the program for the Civic Design Conference we’re hosting November 16th — 18th. Your theme is The Decade Cycle, Ten Years Back, Ten Years Forward. I get the sense that having a bit more historical context and, more importantly, seeing the long game is more important for researchers and designers working in the public sector than elsewhere. It just seems like the cycle is longer, and maybe you have to develop muscles that’ll help you stay in that game for a longer period of time. Is that an aspect of what your speakers are going to be covering?
[Kara] Yeah, it’s something that I talk a lot about to designers, which is that you really have to be there for the long haul. Especially in civic design and government, an idea comes up that sounds amazing, that gets shelved but that might come up again in five years’ time and if you had been the person working on that, doing research or design and prototyping, it’s so exciting when those things come back, and you can start to form them more and hopefully see them out in the world. It does take a lot of resilience to do this type of work. And I think we’ll definitely see that through our talks.
We have a talk by Stephanie Kaiser from the German Federal Government about the beginning stage of starting a new digital organization and learning from all of the other digital government organizations that have been around for the past ten years. But we also have journeys through 50 years of civic design, so it’s not just the last decade. It’s multiple decades of this work and looking wider into the architecture and the ways that people were working and how that’s led to where we are now with the digital government. Lots of interesting stories and narrative arcs from talking about the first 50 years of civic design.
[Lou] If you had to put the moment we’re in, in that broader context, how would you describe where civic design is today?
[Kara] That’s a big question. It’s growing at a really fast pace, and it’s been really exciting for me as an American living abroad to see how much of a role design has in the US government. It’s exciting to see this German federal government team pop up and grow in the past year and to have lots of conversations internationally with teams across the world also doing this type of work. I think a lot of the work from this community in the support that it gives people is helping drive that and giving people the confidence to do this work. I feel confident because I have people that I can go to for support in making it happen. So, I think it’s a really exciting time, and I’m always telling people in the private sector who are bored or jaded in their job to come into government. It’s really exciting!
[Lou] Are there any concerns you have at this moment in time for the growth of civic design in the public sector?
[Kara] A political shift or a priority change can happen at any time, hindering or stopping this work. So, I think it’s about being aware of the context of your work and where you sit, especially if you are in a politically charged part of civic design. And having your eyes open to what’s happening around you so that if something does happen, it’s not a complete shock to the system. You need a lot of resilience to do this type of work. But what I love about civic design is that there are so many different spaces where you can do this work. Whether it’s academia, a nonprofit, or government at any level.
Rosenfeld Media’s next conference is Civic Design 2022, a virtual conference scheduled for November 16–18. Learn more at https://rosenfeldmedia.com/civic-design-2022
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