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Good design is good policy

Can you redesign an entire generation? Leave it to Tishaura Jones, the first female treasurer of St. Louis, to try.

Good design is good policy
[Source Image: mehaseh/iStock]

This is the sixth installment in The Government Fix, a series on redesigning how government works, published in partnership with the nonprofit think tank New America. Read the rest of the series here. –Eds.

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Say you want to start a business. Can you apply for the required permits online? Can you read them in your native language? Can you get an automatic update about your application status? When we talk about designing better government service delivery, we talk most often about improving processes, ways a service gets delivered from government to you. But processes stem from policies. Practitioners may put permit applications online. But policymakers decide what permits you need in order for you, your business, and your community to stay safe and healthy: beverage license for a bar, construction permit for a building addition, health permit for a restaurant.

Sometimes, a bad policy leads to government failure to deliver a service. Sometimes a policy seems good but the ways it gets delivered fails. And sometimes a policy could be great but it is not designed with the delivery in mind, which makes both the policy and the delivery fail. This is a fixable problem. Even better, government already has some of the design-thinking tools to do so. We just tend to store them in a different part of the building, more often with delivery implementation folks and not with policy people. As we’ve shared in this series, many cities have started applying design thinking to services that meet residents’ needs. Less discussed but equally important is applying design thinking to policies that meet residents’ needs.

Which is where civil servants like Tishaura Jones come in.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
As treasurer of St. Louis, she used two key design techniques to improve policy delivery and outcomes. First, she reached out to other cities that had prototyped and tested new, human-centered policies. Building on what other cities had learned allowed St. Louis to springboard forward instead of getting stuck reinventing wheels. Second, she brought together policy and processes, applying people-centered design to the rules that governed services and the delivery of them. By building connective tissue between policy, process, and people, Jones was able to built new trust in old institutions to deliver real change impacting residents’ lives.

Jones did not intend to run for treasurer in St. Louis. Or any office, anywhere, in fact. Born and raised in St. Louis, Jones says that politics played a leading role in her childhood. Her father worked across government roles, including comptroller, assessor, alderman, and committeeman. Tishaura originally planned to go a different path, training in finance and health administration. But when she was in her late twenties, she went bankrupt. She is far from alone. There are deep, structural patterns of pervasive bankruptcy among African Americans in the South. Across the country, one in almost five households, nearly 20 million, have zero or negative net worth, meaning they owe more than they own.

Like so many people across the United States, Jones went under while caring for family. Her father’s career had ended when he was sentenced to federal prison for tax evasion. Her mother was dying of cancer. She was the only child. She did everything she could to care for her family. “Going through that process of rebuilding my credit and rebuilding my life after bankruptcy, that’s one of the other reasons that I did this [entered public service],” she says. “I want to prevent people from falling to the same structural challenges that I did, and to help those already there get out of it. There are ways out. It’s personal for me.”

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She went to the state legislature, the first African-American female assistant minority floor leader. In 2012, she came home to St. Louis and won the election to treasurer, the first woman to hold the position. The job description included reconciling the city’s bank accounts and managing the city’s investments for reserve funds. But Jones saw broader potential impact. It could be a way to connect people to lives supported by financial opportunities, across generations and against all statistics.

[Source Image: claudiodivizia/iStock]
The racial wealth divide amputates the haves from the have-nots across racial lines across America. For every dollar of net worth a white household averages, a black household averages 7¢; a Latino households averages 10¢. As a country, we’re not solving this problem. We’re sliding further into it. When Jones became treasurer in 2012, a third of African-American families in St. Louis were unbanked or underbanked. This means they either had no bank account at an insured institution, or they had a bank account but also relied on financial services and products outside of the banking system, many of which are designed to be predatory.

When you can’t access good credit, a bank account, or financial resources, you are more vulnerable to such predatory services. This can result in having to spend hundreds of dollars a year to get paychecks, reliance on high-cost payday loans for short-term financial need, or being forced into “buy here, pay here” car loans. Each financial decision often sends people further from financial security, instead of closer. “There were several things I was trying to solve,” Jones says about taking on the treasurer’s role. “But the biggest part was the number of under- and unbanked African-American families. At over 30%, I said, ‘This is an epidemic, we really have to take it by the horns.'”

She knew St. Louis needed better policies and processes to change course. She took a critical step while running for office, looking to see how other cities had taken on financial inequity. She quickly discovered Treasurer Jose Cisneros of San Francisco. In 2011, his department started its Kindergarten to College (K2C) Program, which automatically opens a savings account for San Francisco Unified School District kindergartners and deposits $50.

Receiving $50 years before college may not sound like a big deal. It is. Research shows a child with savings in his or her name, even under $500, is three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate than a child with no savings account. Imagine an entire generation of children three times as likely to attend college. That’s what Jones started doing. Specifically, an entire generation of children in St. Louis, a city that cuts almost half and half black and white.

“I am not a fan of reinventing the wheel,” she says. “I’m definitely a fan of seeing what works in other cities and tweaking it for our own environment and then letting it roll.” In 2014, she worked with the Board of Alderman chair Chris Carter to pass an ordinance authorizing the Office of Financial Empowerment, which provides city residents with free financial counseling and tax preparation services. The city used San Francisco and Chicago to model the program after similar operations within city treasurer offices. This included using legislation Chicago created as the basis for policy change in St Louis.

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[Source Image: claudiodivizia/iStock]
I started my career in city government. I’ve also spent the last year interviewing people across cities working inside government to improve services. A critical theme of both experiences: Cities want to share solutions and lessons learned. They share many common problems, issues like blight, homelessness, road repairs, EMS provision. Learning across cities is a key innovation to drive effective change.

In 2015, St. Louis launched the College Kids Children’s Savings Accounts, modeled on San Francisco’s program. The Treasurer’s Office automatically opens a college savings account at the local credit union for every kindergartner entering a public school. The office loads the account with the first $50. Three thousand children got bank accounts the first year. The program now has over 10,000 students.

Huge process barriers often stymie people who need the bank accounts most. You can’t open a bank account without a social security number or a start a 529 fund for a child’s education without significant paperwork. Designing human-centered processes was imperative to enable those who needed the programs most to use them. It would also be critical to building trust in an area of government services with a long history history of failing residents, and specifically, failing African-American residents.

San Francisco proved a critical model in process design as well as policy. Amanda Kahn Freid manages policy and communications for the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector in San Francisco. She remembers when her daughter enrolled in San Francisco’s program. “When she was in kindergarten we got a letter from the city and county saying, ‘Congratulations, your child has a savings account. Here is your information.’ I didn’t have to fill out anything. I didn’t have to sign anything. I didn’t have to provide any information. It was completely automatic, and guess what? The city had already put in $50 for her to start saving.”

San Francisco designed the processes to be everything government processes should be: easy, joy-inducing, universal, and automatic. St. Louis also focused on creating seamless experiences, from policies on the books to implementation processes. Thanks to a 1951 law, the St. Louis treasurer also is the parking supervisor. Jones realized a small portion of the city’s parking revenue could supply the needed $50 for each kindergartner to have a fund for college. “Our mantra in the office was, “How can we turn parking meters from something people hate to something they hate a little less?” Jones says with a laugh.

St. Louis also raised money from public-private partnerships and donations so kids had bonus options to watch their account grow and parents could get involved. These included a match for up to the first $100 a family saves in a year, and bonuses if a parent participates in a city-offered financial education program and/or if the child has perfect or near perfect attendance. With bonuses and matches alone, a child could have almost $3,000 in an account by high school graduation.

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[Source Image: claudiodivizia/iStock]
St. Louis families responded. On average, researchers have estimated that 3% of families opt in to traditional 529 savings programs. The national average for family engagement in these types of child savings account programs hovers between 10% and 12%. St. Louis has 22% of families engaging in its program. Over 2,000 families have put in over $40,000 of their own money into this program.

An important design consideration: Of that $40,000 dollars, 40% is from cash deposits. Low-income families operate most frequently in cash. In traditional 529 accounts, you can’t deposit cash. But you can into this program. The cash model has downsides, including money saved earns less over time than money invested. But a critical benefit is that it designs a program for low-income families that meets them and their needs where they are, building trust in an area of service delivery with a long history of distrust in government that goes beyond bad service delivery.

[Source Image: claudiodivizia/iStock]
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln created The Freedmen’s Bank, the first government promise to help African Americans navigate their financial lives. Former slaves saved enough to stow millions into the bank to save up and buy land. The government failed them. Over half their money disappeared because the federal government did not properly oversee the bank or protect the deposits, As Mehrsa Baradaran relates in The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. People who had nothing, lost what little they had. Including trust in the government, financial and emotional.

[Source Image: claudiodivizia/iStock]
Justin King, policy director of the family-centered social policy program at New America, where I did research, has spent his career working on issues at the intersection of children’s lives and government policies. “Tishaura and Jose before her are reinventing what’s possible inside government,” he says. “People see the state and municipal government, in a lot of cases, as a predator on them and their communities . . . [Their work] is against the tide. It is really positive and really innovative and really worth talking about.”

Distrust in government service delivery has a history as long as the country. Sometimes that history comes from the laws we write or policies we create. Sometimes it comes from our inability to deliver on those laws or policies with customer service or scaled technology. When we build both policies and processes focused on humans, with understanding of what implementation is possible, and radical transparency in process and outcome, we start to build trust that government will deliver–even when it never before has.

Like a piece of technology, a policy itself isn’t enough. A rule on the books can be like a product on the shelf–old, too complicated to use, or miss the mark of the real problem. Implementation matters. Human-centered design matters. Policies and technology are both connective tissue. In their best forms, they connect people to solutions in ways that improve lives and build trust.

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