Vulnerability is the Innovation We Need

Managing the Oakland Civic Design Lab is the first professional position that I have held within city government (the role is a public/private partnership in which we are embedded in Oakland City Hall as a project of the Office of Resiliency). Prior to this role, I created and lead a legal clinic focused on the decriminalization of poverty. In addition to running the clinic, I was responsible for training law students and working on state-based policy initiatives. In this way, I was able to couple the visceral experience of doing direct services work with policy work and training the next generation of advocates. This clinical experience gave me a frontline view of the ways in which policy and service design either successfully mitigate harm or exacerbate the pain and suffering of those in need.

Seeing day in and day out the ways in which my clients were either barred from accessing help or so marred in procedural process so as to render the help ineffective got me to thinking and writing a lot about the systems and policies that are designed to determine someone’s eligibility – that is who is and who is not deserving of access.

In the course of this work, I wrote a Law Review article titled, “Too Rich To Be Poor: The Hypocrisy Of Indigency Determinations,” soon to be published in the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law. In this article, I referenced a theory of vulnerability created by Martha Fineman that I think is applicable to the work of civic design and innovation. Her definition of vulnerability is, “the primal human condition”[1] and “the continuous susceptibility to change in both our bodily and social well-being that all human beings experience.[2]” She states further that:

Human vulnerability has social, as well as physical and material consequences. On the most obvious level, our embodiment means that we are innately dependent on the provision of care by others when we are infants and often when we are ill, aged, or disabled. It is human vulnerability that compels the creation of social relationships found in designated social institutions, such as the family, the market, the educational system and so on. The very formation of communities, associations, and even political entities and nation-states are responses to human vulnerability. Social problems emerge when these social institutions and relationships are not functioning well.[3]

As applied to civic innovation, civic design etc., this framework helps us to understand in very real terms the role and responsibility of government.  Government would be unnecessary if vulnerability was not the status quo human condition; people would just fend for themselves. If that is true, then, it follows that civic design and innovation would be unnecessary if the response to human vulnerability was functioning well. The reality of government failure seems to be inapposite to the way government views itself or at least to how government typically responds to failure, which is to create more process, more bureaucracy and more limitations.

This process-oriented response triggers another interesting facet of vulnerability, albeit from a different framework – this one from Brene Brown who defines vulnerability as “the willingness to show up when we can’t control the outcome.”[4] She goes on to put forth a challenge to business — and I would add government leaders — which is “can you get the people around you to answer their personal call to courage, in the service of your work?”[5] Most importantly, she says, “If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.[6]

So what does this vulnerability look like? My job as the Civic Design Lab Manager is to innovate, a task that seems impossible without understanding all the nuances of culture that pervade the city.

For instance, what are the policies and practices?

If department leaders have an open-door policy but as a practice no one feels comfortable using it, does the policy matter?

If every reaction to failure is to create more process which makes getting anything done significantly harder, how can innovation occur?

If an employee has ideas but does not feel empowered to voice them or feels bogged down by process, how long will that employee continue to generate energy, enthusiasm and excitement?

If that employee is on the frontlines, dealing with vulnerable citizens – those who the current processes and procedures are failing — then how can there be any certainty that the ideas generated by others will be responsive to the needs of the citizenry?

As Brene’ Brown says, “Unused creativity is not benign, it metastasizes into grief, rage, judgment and shame.[7]

These are all questions that I am confronted with on a day-to-day basis, as an outsider, now on the inside. Being new to working within government, I have traded my front row seat to the plight of my clients and the systems that failed to mitigate their harm for a front row seat of the systems themselves. I am now a part of, and beholden to, the very processes that I as an advocate critiqued and fought to change. To take on this role, I had to embrace my own vulnerability, knowing that I was uncertain if I could come into the system and have the success I had on the outside and really, even if I could, should I?

Innovation is the buzzword that everyone is using but perhaps we need to first tackle whether or not we are properly set up to tap into the courageousness imbued by vulnerability and its relation to creativity. After all, if we don’t create an internal culture of vulnerability, we will likely continue to fail the citizens we work for, the very ones who depend on government to help balance out their own individual vulnerability. There is too much at stake for the status quo to remain.

Brandon L. Greene is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the Manager of the Civic Design Lab in Oakland. Brandon is a graduate of Boston University Law School where he was a Public Interest Scholar and Martin Luther King Social Justice Fellow. Previously, Brandon was an Attorney and Clinical Supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center where he created and lead the decriminalization of poverty clinic. Brandon’s article Depraved Necessities: Prison Privatization, Educational Attainment and the Path to Profit was published in 2013 by SRBLSA Law Journal. His forthcoming articles will be published in the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal and the Berkeley Criminal Law Journal. Twitter: @brandonlgreene. You can read his posts here.

[1] Fineman, Martha Albertson, Vulnerability and Inevitable Inequality (December 13, 2017). Oslo Law Review, Vol. 4, pp133-149; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3087441
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] https://www.inc.com/sonya-mann/brene-brown-being-a-brave-leader-means-being-vulnerable.html
[5] Id.
[6] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brene-brown-netflix-career-advice_l_5cc8556be4b02791823f511f
[7] http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/dr-brene-brown-quotes-on-shame-vulnerability-and-daring-greatly/all

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Catherine Andrews

I love Brene Brown! And I had never thought before about how vulnerability makes a play in state and local government. I loved this take. Thank you!

Danielle Metzinger

This is fantastic, Brandon! This is spot on. I can relate to much of what you’ve brought forward here and I’m very interested to learn more about civic design. Thank you for writing this!


I am looking forward to read “Too Rich To Be Poor: The Hypocrisy Of Indigency Determinations,” Please advise when it has been published.