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Human-Centered Design, Homelessness, and Civic Tech at the 2016 Code for America Summit

In early November, several City employees attended the Code for America Summit in Oakland, California. There were three representatives from Seattle IT (CTO Michael Mattmiller, Director of Applications Tara Duckworth, and myself, Civic Technology Advocate Candace Faber). We were joined by four members of the Mayor’s Innovation Team (Tina Walha, Rodrigo Sanchez, Adam Petkun, and Hannah Hill), and Sergeant Dan Nelson from the Seattle Police Department, who worked closely with Seattle’s Code for America Fellowship team this past year.

After the Summit, we got together to trade insights and lessons learned. Here are our collective key takeaways:

  • Sustainability matters. There are a lot of people who want to solve problems with technology – building the tools is the fun part – but afterwards, the tools need to be transferred, marketed, supported, sustained, and monitored to see if they are really being used.

    “We need to set up just enough documentation, and just enough process, to ensure [civic tech tools] can be sustained.”

  • Tech can lower barriers and increase engagement. We learned about tools being used in other cities to engage with the public, from a crisis text line in Anchorage that operates over SMS to the CityVoice app that allows people to chime in through short telephone surveys.

    “The statistics showed that they were reaching new people [with the surveys]. In Morro Bay, 74 percent of respondents said it was their first time engaging with government. In San Francisco, it was 58 percent. That seems timely given the Mayor’s focus on equitable engagement.”

    “Other cities are using text messages to deliver services. It’s so low-cost, so easy, and so common as a way for people to receive information, compared to drafting letters and stuffing envelopes.”

  • Government and constituents experience things differently. There is a natural tension between how government and the public experience our work. In government, we think about policy, then process, then services. For the user, it goes in the opposite direction.

    “It’s on us [in government] to think not just about the policy, but what the constituent experiences.”



Design Thinking & Homelessness
We also had an extended discussion about design thinking and user-centered design, particularly in the context of homelessness. These are the insights we’d like to share:

  • It’s not about housing, it’s about having a home. Bureaucrats can get lost in the day-to-day of what we have to accomplish and forget that the person on the other side isn’t looking for “a unit of affordable housing,” but a place to live that meets their needs. If we don’t achieve that, we haven’t solved homelessness, no matter how much housing we build.
  • The “user experience” is critical. When a person seeks assistance from the government, what message does the government send? Are they a welcome guest or an unwanted visitor? Right now, it’s hard to imagine justifying these customer service touches as a budget line item. As one of our attendees said, “We don’t measure user experience as part of performance. It would change a lot of things if we did.”

    “When you walk into a Doubletree, it smells like a warm cookie, and then they just give you a warm cookie. How would it change things if you just gave people a warm cookie when they walked in seeking services? It’s a small thing, but it communicates that people are valued.”

  • Government should question whether its practices help or harm. People are not always willing to accept government services, but we rarely ask why. Perhaps it’s not true that they “just don’t want help” – it might be that what we are offering doesn’t help at all.

    “When we do intake, we say to people, ‘Tell me about your life story’ – and they are retraumatized every single time.”

  • We need to design City employees’ work around the people they serve. The hours for a typical homelessness outreach program are Monday through Friday, 7 am to 5 pm – not the hours when an outreach worker is likely to be most helpful to a person in crisis.
  • We have competition. In the private sector, competition fuels service. Companies don’t want their customers to go to a competitor. In government, we think we have a monopoly, but we don’t. If what we’re providing isn’t good enough, it impacts people’s lives. We are competing, and we want to do better.

    “In government, we think we have a monopoly. But we don’t. Our competitor is the street.”

Want to know more?
Below is a video of Sergeant Dan Nelson’s presentation with Code for America Fellow Meredith Hitchcock from the Summit main stage. You can find full video content from the Summit on the 2016 Summit Mainstage channel on YouTube.