4 Strategies for Redesigning Your Approach to Civic Engagement

A few days ago, we highlighted the redesign of nyc.gov as a great case study in the use of good design to better accomplish agency goals.

Of course, reading a case study and adopting a new approach are two different things. That’s why we decided to dig deeper into the topic. Kate Watts is Managing Director of the Washington, D.C. branch of Huge – the digital design firm responsible for transforming New York City’s website. She’s worked with clients in both the public and private sectors, and has a number of insights into the challenges and best practices for using design to foster citizen engagement.

“Government is about serving people’s needs and keeping people informed, and the best way to do that is through good design,” said Watts. “The way to create good design is to understand where your user is coming from.”

The transformation of nyc.gov was certainly about updating the visual aesthetic of the site to match customer expectations of a good, modern website – but primarily it was about putting the citizen’s needs first. As an example of a site that does both, Watts cited the state of Utah’s homepage, which prominently features a single search bar. Citizens and visitors can search for the information or service they are looking for, and find results without having to dig through layers of pages and subpages.

Screenshot of the Utah.gov homepage. Image courtesy of Utah.gov

“Ultimately, great design is meant to alleviate the burden of users,” said Watts. “It should also serve constituents in a way that they have been accustomed to in dealing with other brands online.”

Adopting a New Approach: A Terrifying Prospect for Anyone

Speaking of other brands, Watts emphasized that the challenges associated with adopting a new approach are not unique to government. “I think there is an assumption that the private sector is enthusiastic or just ‘gets it,’ but that is not necessarily the case,” she explained.

Specifically, Watts mentioned a private sector client that approached Huge about revamping and updating their brand. “That was a massive undertaking because you had to go in and convince people who run their departments that streamlining their information is actually more beneficial to the user,” said Watts.

The challenges experienced by private sector clients will seem very familiar to public sector professionals: hierarchy; a sense of ownership over the content and the specific line of business; the risk of failure; and fear of alienating the audience. But in reality, the riskier proposition is maintaining the status quo.

“Think about people who are interacting with their state and local governments now – I can guarantee that an overwhelming majority of their interactions are online,” said Watts. “So why wouldn’t you want to update your brand to reflect who you are and who your constituents are?”

Some Advice for Redesigning Your Approach to Civic Engagement

Recognizing that organizational change is never easy, Watts provided a number of suggestions for agencies looking to adopt a new approach. She argued that change can either take place slowly or abruptly, but it won’t happen without conscious effort.

Put the User First

This may seem repetitive, but as we demonstrated in the previous article, it is a principle that sometimes gets lost in the reality of day-to-day government work. It is also the most important step. “You have to do that,” said Watts. “You have to understand how [constituents] are going to use your digital services, rather than focusing on how you feel like you need to portray them.”

Gather Leadership Support and Build Your Brand

We say this a lot, but Watts can trace the success of the nyc.gov redesign directly to the vision of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It takes somebody who comes in and says, ‘We need to run our agency like a business and a brand,’” said Watts. “Ultimately the brand represents the city and represents the people who live there.”

Recruit Great Talent

During her time in DC, Watts has made it a point to debunk the perception that government work is laborious or unexciting. “I can tell you that our team had an incredible time with New York City,” she said. “Designers are really attracted to solving problems for the public and making people’s lives easier and better, so agencies need to use that as a rallying cry.” Instead of treating change as burdensome, focus on the positive impact you can have. “That will really attract great talent,” said Watts.

Work with Agility

This boils down to moving more quickly, which is often easier said than done for public agencies. Acknowledging this, Watts emphasized the need to creatively find ways to match service delivery with expectations. “Not only is technology moving fast, but people are moving fast as well,” she said. “If we don’t service [constituents] as quickly as they expect it, we’re already losing the game before it is even started.”

Ultimately this discussion is really about reminding ourselves that our constituents are at the heart of everything we do, which can sometimes get lost as we find ourselves pulled in a dozen different directions. Fortunately, by employing the technology, and a few key design principles, we might discover a better way to connect to those we’re trying to serve.

For more information about nyc.gov, and other redesign success stories, click here.

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