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A People-Centered Approach to Problem-Solving

Tara Dawson McGuinness describes her work as sitting at the intersection of policy creation, implementation, and citizen and community voices.

McGuinness works at New America, a public policy think tank, where she founded the New Practice Lab, a research and design lab focused on family economic security. She researches how networks, technology, management and data practices can be used to tackle inequity and other challenges.

During the Obama administration, she oversaw federal teams working alongside city, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in Detroit, Baltimore, Flint, Michigan, and other communities. She also led the effort to sign up Americans for health care through Healthcare.gov.

The common thread? Ensuring that government policies and programs lead to meaningful change in the lives of constituents.

The Vision

In the book “Power to the Public,” McGuinness and co-author Hana Schank define an approach to problem-solving that they call public interest technology.

Problem-solving is the operative term, while technology is the tool. McGuinness describes policymakers, lawmakers and other public officials as problem-solvers working to promote the public good by crafting new policies or creating new processes, often supported by technology.

Public interest technology provides a three-pronged approach to tackling problems:

Design emphasizes the need to understand the needs of the people you are trying to serve before crafting policy or creating new processes. “To improve how government works today, we need to build a tighter feedback loop between the people and those who design policies for them,” the authors write.

Data provides a reality check. “Do we have enough data to know who we’re reaching, how we’re reaching them and whether we’re reaching them in real time?” McGuinness said.

Delivery speaks to the need for agencies to learn and adapt as policies play out. Practically speaking, it might mean running small pilot tests before a larger rollout.

“These elements are not new on their own,” McGuinness said. “What is new is that across the world, people are using this combination of approaches to serve people better and solve problems at their root.”

As intuitive as public interest technology sounds, most government agencies aren’t set up to work this way. Although they might have a clear process for creating new policies or processes, they probably don’t have someone keeping the constituents front and center in that process.

For example, even if agencies collect data on the impact of their programs, they don’t necessarily use that data to drive changes. “You can have really great dashboards and make no changes in how you serve the public, which happens so frequently,” McGuiness said.

Another problem is the complexity of many government processes. If agencies don’t bring a people-centered approach to digitization, they are likely to end up with a digital mess.

“New tools are important, but these tools cannot be digitized versions of overly complex paper systems,” the authors wrote in their book. “New tools don’t work without understanding the humans who use them, their skills, their work, and their challenges. And new tools won’t fix a broken policy or a convoluted process.”

Try This

McGuinness offered two ways that agencies can begin moving toward this idea of public interest technology:

  • Get out of the office. Before developing a new policy or process, take the time to see how things work. For example, visit your agency call center — not just to wave but to shadow a worker for a day. McGuinness and Schank spoke with one German official who made it a practice to read call center transcripts every Friday so that he could see where people were getting stuck.
  • Find good enough data. McGuinness said that agencies tend to want analytics perfection when they really just need some basic real- time metrics. For example, given a particular service, how many people are eligible for that service, how many of them are using it and who isn’t being reached?

This article is from our guide, “Agency of the Future: How New Ideas are Emerging in the Present.” To read more about how agencies are building the future now, download it here:

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