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Knowing when you’ve failed can be design’s key to success

Sometimes failure is what government needs to start innovating, whether you’re talking about death certificates in Boston or torn-up streets in Saint Paul.

Knowing when you’ve failed can be design’s key to success
[Source Photo: fotyma/iStock]

This is the fifth installment in The Government Fix, a new series on redesigning how government works, published in partnership with the nonprofit think tank New America. –Eds.

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When you interact with government, it’s easy to wonder, “Why can’t I just do [fill in basic task long since conquered by other industries]? Why do they make it so HARD?” Picture an octopus. Now picture coordinating 57 of them to resurface your city streets. That’s what designing a better experience from government can look like. Four hundred fifty-six octopus tentacles holding keys to concrete-busting vehicles.

(And we thought teaching teenagers to drive was scary.)

In recent years, many people with design and technology expertise have entered public service to wrangle the octopuses. We often frame these stories as tales of solutions: experts tackling basic challenges to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and experience of critical services government gives you. They open data to increase transparency. They build websites to decrease inconvenience. They streamline processes to increase services. They have stickers. They wear hoodies. They organize octopuses.

[Source Photo: fotyma/iStock]
What we fail to do is talk about, well, failure. People outside government alone in asking “Why is it so HARD?” People inside government ask this every day—including people with expertise in service delivery. Especially people with expertise in service delivery. I’ve worked in federal and local government. I’ve also spent the past year interviewing people working in and around government. Uniform consensus: octopus wrangling is hard. Failures abound. Those failures are important. Too often, we omit them from tales about experts entering government.

Technical expertise alone does not make a functional government, nor does design expertise guarantee a joyful experience. Government is an interdisciplinary problem. As cities like Boston, Saint Paul, and Philadelphia show, sometimes the most important “solution” service design experts build is a space to recognize failure as a potential route toward success—including failing themselves along the way.

Before Boston made death certificates available online for purchase earlier this year, residents had two options. One: Trek to City Hall, find the Registry department, wait in line, request certificates, pay $12, receive paper copy, trek back home. Two: Buy an electronic copy online from Vital Check, an outside provider, without moving from desk, couch, or kitchen table—for $45, three times the price.

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Few things about government service delivery irk people as much as having to haul down to a government building to stand in line and fill out paperwork for services it feels like any teenager with an iPad could provide. After discovering the online option, Boston death certificate seekers chose this option in droves, even with the extra expense, as Registry noticed from the shortened lines and reduced numbers showing up at City Hall.

[Source Photo: fotyma/iStock]
The City of Boston is lucky enough to have an internal Digital Team, service experts with design and technology expertise. The team describes its approach with words not often associated with government: “beautiful” and “welcoming” and “highly useful” and “energizing” and “helpful human.” But it wasn’t these user-centered technologists and design experts who accelerated the process to get online death certificate options from the city. As Boston’s first Chief Digital Officer Lauren Lockwood explained, “[Registry] created urgency around this for us. They surfaced that we weren’t serving constituent needs.”

The Digital Team decided to bring death and birth certificates online. Doing both seemed to make technical sense. The forms appear similar. They reference the same internal database. The same department owns them. They started from the premise that one solution could work for both. Instead, they discovered they didn’t know that who used the forms and how differed.

How did they figure it out? Once again, expertise from Registry. New parents buy birth certificates. Parents average one child at a time, sometimes two. Maybe three. (Mazel tov.) They don’t normally require birth certificates in bulk.

Death certificates were a different story. Local funeral homes buy most of Boston’s death certificates. They come in like Amazon Prime power users, scooping up dozens at a time. “That alone meant that we couldn’t use the software we had been using for our other forms,” said Lockwood. “Just that simple requirement change, needing to be able to buy different things at the same time, created a problem.” Instead of a single option check-out, like Amazon super users they needed a shopping cart.

[Source Photo: fotyma/iStock]
Putting death certificates online wasn’t Boston’s end goal. Creating the best possible experience was. “What makes us successful is building trust relationships with other departments,” said Fin Hopkins, an engineer on Digital Team. The Registrar’s knowledge that funeral homes needed death certificates in bulk alone wouldn’t have solved the problem. Nor would the digital team knowing a shopping cart required a different software. Internal agencies had to build trust, enough to share points of failure and problem-solve proposed solutions.

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In Saint Paul, civil servant Jessica Brokaw champions building trust, particularly when it comes to transparency around failure. As deputy director in Saint Paul’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Department, she is passionate about procurement. She oversees the city’s contract compliance and business development, an expertise she first honed in the North Dakota National Guard and then over 13 years in county procurement.

For years, Saint Paul’s Department of Public Works (DPW) faced massive procurement challenges trying to fix legendary abysmal streets. In Saint Paul, road construction season starts in May or June and has to button up by first freeze. Inevitably each year, road repair contracts would start late, suffer from change requests, and end over budget and late. Each time crews didn’t finish before the first freeze, Saint Paul residents were left with half-repaired, half torn-up streets—for eight months, until the next thaw.

In 2015, Saint Paul became a new addition to What Works Cities, the largest national philanthropic initiative to support effective solutions to civic problems. Through the initiative, Saint Paul partnered with the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL), which focuses on results-driven contracting. One of the issues it raised was lack of vendor competition.

The GPL team leveraged Brokaw’s knowledge of the community to interview vendors across a twenty-five mile radius. Having GPL do interviews created a safe space for vendors to share candid feedback about city failure without fear of bottom line impact. Vendors had deep legacy assumptions that working with Public Works would be difficult. Saint Paul is a bustling metropolis. Vendors had many opportunities during construction season. Why apply for government contracts that would be a hassle?

“Saint Paul needed to get the word out, explain that the city wants to collaborate with vendors,” explained Jennifer North from GPL. Before it could improve resident experience, it needed to redesign the vendor experience. That started with two challenges: admitting public failure and changing business processes. Brokaw took up both with gusto.

“We also started doing procurement fairs where we invited all of our vendors in to meet all of the project managers,” said Brokaw. “We had over four hundred vendors come through our door.” The city prioritized projects, listed subcontracts so women and minority-owned companies could identify opportunities, and designed a retreat for every city department impacted by street reconstruction projects. This allowed city agencies to coordinate needs, flag issues, and solve problems before vehicles hit the streets.

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The next time St. Paul put road repair contracts out to bid, six different vendors won the seven contracts, instead of the same two vendors winning everything. By building a public space to communicate failure, and increasing transparency on tactical steps to address it, and asking for continued feedback, the city built not only new roads, but also new trust in the system.

As any federal employee who has ever attempted to publish a Medium post will attest, creating a public space to communicate from government at all, much less communicate failure, is much harder than it sounds. In 2017, when Philadelphia’s mayor launched GovLabPHL to promote data and evidence-based practices to solve city problems, Anjali Chainani knew using digital communications to connect its work to others would be key. Chainani started as an intern with the city in 2003, working her way up to Director of Policy in the Mayor’s Office. After a decade working across city challenges, she’s a fierce advocate for partnering design and data with residential challenges to improve government services.

Philly had already built GovLabPHL to empower and support the expertise that exists across city employees, who often face structural challenges when delivering services. It combined people across departments onto one team to avoid silos. This brought systems thinkers, subject matter experts, and implementers together to use data to help answer key policy questions. The city also built additional partnerships and connections to expertise outside government, including with local universities.

Inspired by the digital communications strategy led by the Mayor’s Communications Office and Digital Director, Stephanie Waters, Chainani also sidestepped a traditional government failure–communication only by press release. GovLabPHL created multiple communications channels, including an in-person series and a Twitter handle. The latter seemed obvious: get online, build an audience, get people excited, put government info where people already are. What could be easier than reaching people on Twitter?

But the team’s designed outreach about designing better government didn’t work. “We would post pictures of the team in a meeting and it didn’t seem like that was really that interesting or that anybody cared,” said Chainani. In government, it’s easy to try something that fails and stop. But Philadelphia turned failure into an opening: how could it improve the service design of the outreach the city was using to share practices like service design?

The team designed new tests, tried different approaches, and asked people what they wanted to see. Unsurprising answer: themselves. GovLabPHL now engages over 200 city employees,10 academic partners, and 12 experiments to pilot, test and improve city programs. It’s Twitter feed includes animated videos, champions of its work, its partners, and recurring features. Having a public presence surfaces Phillly’s work, inspires other cities, shares best practices, and empowers staff to pursue projects of their own. “There was never a point where we knew any one thing we were doing would work, be well received, or be worth people’s time,” said Chainani. “We just knew there was value in testing and piloting, there was value in partnerships, and there was value in the results.”

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When it comes to wrangling the octopuses of service delivery, failure is inevitable. It is also an opportunity to understand work, narrow options, focus attention, and propel improvement. Outside government, the best-managed projects create space and tolerance for failures for exactly these reasons. As Boston, St. Paul, and Philly show, government too, can use failure to drive toward success. Tentacles and all.

Read more from this series: 

The enduring mythology of the whiz kid

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