Let’s Talk About Money 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 Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director of the Public Policy Lab. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
So I want to jump right into this space of civic design, this intersection of design in the public sector. We started thinking about this conference close to two years ago. There was certainly a lot of excitement in the states that there would be more investment in providing good services through government channels to citizens and other people, at least in the United States. And like everything else, it has been full of uncertainty, and the road seems to be rockier and rockier. So how should I feel, as a citizen of the US, as a consumer of federally delivered services, and as a taxpayer?
[Chelsea] So my organization is a nonprofit organization that partners with people inside of government to help them use human-centered design research methodologies to figure out new ways to both invent policy, and deliver public services that are enabled by policy. So we spend most of our time talking to people who reside in the government and are trying to figure out how to use the state’s power to deliver value to Americans. Again and again, my experience has been that those human beings are incredibly hardworking, incredibly dedicated to trying to do the right thing, and genuinely interested in how government can be a positive actor in the lives of the American people. I think that sometimes there’s a sort of cynicism about the intentions or capabilities of public servants, which has just simply not been true in my experience. So, I don’t feel despair. I have a lot of respect and regard for people who are working inside the government to try to make positive change. As long as they’re committed to doing good work, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to not try to match their commitment.
To me, it feels like we have this problem with the word government. Government can mean elected officials and in this country, we have a huge number of elected roles. Those folks are politicians, and they have both a responsibility to their constituents, and a personal responsibility to get themselves reelected. Meanwhile, you have executive agencies, which are the agencies of government that actually deliver stuff. That’s the Department of Sanitation that comes around and picks up your trash, or the Department of Transportation that paves the potholes in your street. Those are operational units of government that actually deliver services and people often don’t differentiate between the two.
The same goes with policy. Policy can mean legislation and statute law, but it can also mean the rules and regulations that are developed based on those laws. It can mean the sort of operational systems that emerge inside of executive agencies, which are essentially the operating systems of different programs, which are nowhere written in law, but nonetheless have to be defined and used to actually deliver on some public policy or public program.
[Lou] Getting into your work at the Public Policy Lab, are you exploring at that sort of broad level of different ways of framing policy? Or do you get more into policy design?
[Chelsea] We use a human centered methodology in our work. So fundamentally, when we begin to engage with the government partner about some project, we ask, who are all of the people who are involved in the creation and delivery of whatever this policy enabled thing is? And that means the people inside of running the program, the members of the public who are using or experiencing the public service, and also everybody in the middle, the frontline staff, the operational folks who are completely invisible, and the people going out in the public and collecting stories. And to do this, we are inspired by the methods of ethnographers. We try to go where people are and hang out with them and see what their life experience is and what happens when this policy is delivered to people.
When we do that, we end up collecting all these stories from different points in a system. And the work of the designer in that context is to do synthesis of all of those different, sometimes conflicting, points of view and say, “what do all of these people share? What is their shared need from this system?”
[Lou] What do you find is the biggest challenge for designers in this space? Are they equipped to do that type of synthesis?
[Chelsea] I think in order to be equipped, you actually have to have some idea of what design concepts are most worth pursuing. So, we often talk about designers in commercial contexts but I want you to also imagine this as well, which is what’s the value versus feasibility? For example, a lot of times if you’re looking at some policy enabled context, you can say, “If we could do this thing in this system, it would be transformative for everybody who’s using this service. But wow, that’ll take five or 15 years and cost billions of dollars. That may not be possible. Then there’s this thing we could do over here. We could just make this one form a little more attractive by making the space to write in your email long enough that you can actually fit your email into the box.” That’s relatively easy but has relatively low impact in terms of actually transforming the way that the service functions. So I think part of that assessment, is to step back and look at all of this human data and look at what’s the stuff in there that both has the potential to deliver the most value while being within the zone of feasibility? What are the projects that are in that sweet spot of value and viability?
[Lou] I think a lot of it comes down to having the sustainability of a project to weather the changes that are inevitable. Is that challenge of sustaining projects over the long term something your lab looks at?
[Chelsea] There’s this great saying by the sociologist Max Weber, “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” So this idea that what happens in the political space is by its very nature systemic. It’s about the alteration or manipulation of society’s relationship with itself. So it moves at a slow speed. This is why government is often considered to be risk averse, because like governance is a slow business. Politicians may well be making kind of political shifts with the wind, but in terms of actually how, how public services get delivered that often is a, is a slow system. When you’re working inside of a slow system, you know that any meaningful change is going to take not weeks or months, but years to roll out. So the way that our team deals with that is we know that we won’t see the real implementation of our design products. We will design a thing, but we have to design it in deep collaboration with our government partners because then we have to leave. They’re not gonna keep us around for five years. So, we have to design the thing with them so tightly that they internalize it and understand it and they become co-creators of these solutions while we melt away.
[Lou] One thing we hope to learn from Chelsea at her Civic Design talk is about the money. In fact, the topic of her talk is titled, Let’s Talk About Money. So let’s talk about money. Is this the money coming in? The money going out?
[Chelsea] A little running joke about me is I always want to talk about the money. Even when one is running a not-for-profit organization as I do, one’s life still involves conversations and questions about money. Our not-for-profit organization doesn’t rely on donations. Rather, we primarily go to large philanthropies and ask for grants to fund our work, or we have contracts with government agencies who provide us with revenue in exchange for us providing them with research and design and strategic advice. One big question is, how much should our engagement in a project cost? How do we decide what X amount of work carried out by X amount of people over X amount of time should cost? This is the question of any professional services organization, whether for profit or not. And then a related question is, how much should we get paid? How much should everyone on the team receive? Our organization is sort of unusual in that, we have highly skilled, highly trained and educated people doing our work. People who, if they went to private sector roles, could certainly make more money, but who are interested in doing public sector work. So how do we compensate them? Do we compensate them like the highly trained professionals they are, or do we compensate them as people who are working in a public interest not for profit organization or something in the middle? And then finally, how do we make all those decisions based on our values?
We’re in a public interest organization, so our mission is explicitly not to generate profit. Our mission is to generate positive value in the world. So how do we make our decisions about money reflect the fact that we’re trying to make positive value in the world? That means taking projects even when they’re not going be super profitable while also paying people really well so that they have a good quality of life. But, if you pay people super well and take some projects that are not profitable, you’ll go out of business; you will cease to have enough revenue to continue to operate the organization, which is supposed to be that engine of change.
It felt to me that as much as there’s a growing civic design community, it didn’t feel like I heard many people talking about the fundamental economics of a civic design consultancy between a government partner and an outside of government partner. But that is what drives the viability of the work. So the reason why I proposed this talk was I wanted to start having a conversation about the way that money either enables or smothers the ability to do good work in this space.
We have something that we call the PPL organizational model. It’s a three-piece model and each piece interacts with each other. One piece is a pay scale, which is transparent. Everybody in our organization knows how much everybody else in our organization makes and why. It’s based on a set of objective criteria so that we can figure out how to pay people and how to give people raises. Additionally, we have a project execution model, which is based on an agile software development framework which allows us to scope out projects based on standard sprints and releases in order to conduct the work over a given period of time. Then we have a costing model that allows us to essentially say who’s going to work on this project and the duration of the project and it’s level of intensity. That piece tells us how much a project needs to generate in terms of revenue for it to be affordable for us to execute it. Our internal bookkeeping is available to every member of our team so that everybody on the team knows how much a project is bringing in, how much time we’re dedicating to it, and how their billable hours relate to the profitability of the revenue generation of that project.
[Lou] would it be fair to say that someone attending the Civic Design Conference in November could come away from it with a reasonably good framework to do the same work with their own services and how they are compensating their own people?
[Chelsea] That is my hope! What I also want people to be aware of is that it’s about a deep investigation with your team about how you are using money in the organization to both enable good work and create the maximum freedom and satisfaction for everybody who works there. Everyone could make more money, but that would mean we would need to take on more projects. If you take on more projects, that means more labor, that means probably less time off. There are always trade offs working as we do in the context of capitalism, where there is an hour of someone’s time and there is a dollar of someone’s revenue that’s going to get generated. So really being able to have those conversations with your team is important.
[Lou] And I think it’s so important in this particular setting where values are a big reason that people are here in the first place. You can’t just peg it to the private sector in terms of what people are being paid, what clients are being charged. It’s a different value system altogether.
Before we wrap up, one last question. In the Rosenfeld review tradition of having my guests give a gift to our listeners, what should they know about?
[Chelsea] One thing that I use continuously in my own life leading this organization is the idea of the Eisenhower matrix, which is a sort of task sorting and effort triaging tool supposedly invented by Ike himself, or at least popularized by Eisenhower which is about thinking about everything you have to do in terms of its relative urgency as well as its relative importance. And things that are both urgent and important are what you should always do first.
The danger is that things that are urgent, but not that important are what tend to then swarm your to-do list. and you spend a lot of time knocking off tasks that feel time sensitive, but actually aren’t all that meaningful for whatever effort you’re trying to run, whether that’s World War II or a small design organization. But really what Eisenhower said is the stuff in the quadrant, which is important, but not urgent, that is the entire strategic future of whatever it is that you are working on. And that is the space that you must jealously guard and attempt to always hold your time for, the stuff which is deeply important to achieving what it is you want to achieve, but that doesn’t have an immediate deadline attached to it. Because it’s so easy to push it off.
[Lou] Thank you so much for sharing. Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Public Policy Lab, and speaker at the upcoming Civic Design Conference taking place virtually November 16th through 18th. Be there, learn from Chelsea and keep optimistic.
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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