Angela HansonSeptember 7, 2017

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On November 2-3, we hope you will attend the Feedback Summit and talk with us about internal culture change, both in the public sector and otherwise. We have learned through observation and our own trial and error many painful lessons about the value of closing feedback loops and introducing new practices within the public sector. One of our most salient: consult thyself first.

In order to build a level of comfort with externally-facing feedback practices, we learned to first go inward.

Join us in this conversation in November to talk about these three things, as well as others we have learned through our public sector work.

  1. Incorporate Reflection
    When it comes to improving the interactive experience of a product or service, the best design is invisible – it adapts to people’s existing routines and perceptions. Designers benefit from investment research that identifies what users need. Then comes the fun part: designing and building a solution based on this deeper understanding.

    Sounds great, right? Except when the “investor”—in our case, public sector staff responsible for efficient allocation of taxpayer dollars—questions the value of the “invisible” user research. Since this step is so essential in building effective feedback loops, it is important that the invisible be made visible. This is particularly challenging in the public sector where return on investment – like more effective community outcomes – is more difficult to quantify.

    For this reason, designers in the public sector need to share with their teams not just the results of this research, but the process of it. For example, invite people from across the team to observe the research as its happening. By making the discovery process tangible so you can show how going slow helped a process go fast in the end. Or, show the value of user research through documentation of user data and retrospective reflection on how far everyone’s collective understanding has shifted. Regardless of how you chose to involve your team, creating an ongoing awareness of the work that ensures the insights obtained from it will be respected and preserved.

  2. Show, Don’t Tell
    You may also need to show your collaborators new pathways to do their work. Remember that not everyone is born knowing how to use GitHub or agile project management tools. The world is awash with fantastic new tools that enable collaboration and the closing of feedback loops. However, public servants—especially the most dedicated ones—have been toiling away to keep their ships afloat and do not always get exposure to the latest tools and technology.

    When considering introducing something new, be prepared to go the extra mile to be inclusive and patient; show people how these tools and methods could solve a problem they face day-to-day—even if it’s not the public-facing problem you need their help with. These taster experiences will help reduce the perceived headache of having to learn “the latest new tool” and will increase exposure and practice with new tools in a sandbox environment first.

  3. Design for Both Sides of the Counter*
    In order to introduce anything new internally, whether it is a new tool or an entire paradigm shift, you should first take time to understand the needs and language of internal staff.

    What are they trying to solve for and what do they have at their disposal to do it? You may find that they are holding the place together with duct tape and sheer grit. You may also find that veteran internal staff can sniff out a possible hype cycle from a mile away and may be wary of you. They need allies. When considering how to create a “win” for customers or citizens, also consider designing for a “win” on the other side of the government counter. Is there a repetitive, soul-sucking task that can be automated or eliminated? Is there a way to share resources or just practical wisdom across units of government? When designing your approach to change, use your outsider’s perspective and your empathy to identify design criteria that create “wins” for internal staff and build trust along the way.

If you want to benefit from our bumps and bruises in learning these three things, visit us November 2-3 at the Feedback Summit. I will be joined by Lane Becker of 18F and Matt Bailey of the White House Office of Management and Budget. We will be happy to share our stories of good, bad, and ugly. We also want to learn from your work on internal culture change, public sector or otherwise. We hope to see you soon!

*This phrase and public sector mantra was first inspired by Abhi Nemani’s fantastic Medium post.


Angela Hanson serves an innovation strategist with the City of Austin’s Office of Innovation by configuring people, teams, tools, and methods to generate innovative paths through the complex systems inherent in the domain of public administration. Angela draws on her formal education in ecosystem science from the University of Minnesota, her previous work directing and planning Austin’s natural systems as the City’s urban forester, and her relentless curiosity to guide others in untangling and transforming public sector challenges.

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