I don’t know about you, but I dread explaining my job to my family members back home. And with the holidays just a few weeks away, I know I am going to get asked, “You write about government employees all day? Why? They are just boring bureaucrats.” As I sit at the table, eating my third piece of pie (no judging please), I can’t help but get frustrated -- because government employees are rock stars. Yes. I said it. Sure there are a few bad bureaucrats, but you know what? Most of them are serious innovators.
When you are outside of the government bubble, it can be hard to see the changes. But they are happening and they are happening because of people like Mai-Ling Garcia. Garcia is the Online and Engagement Manger in the City of Oakland. She is tasked with the very difficult job of making online engagements useful, real and effective for the people of Oakland.
Over the course of the year we have talked to Garcia a few times about some of the innovations going on in Oakland. You can see those conversations here and here. But today I wanted to get her thoughts on 2014, what worked, what didn’t and what she expects to see in 2015.
It may sound simple, but the idea behind human-centered design is to put the customer at the center of your strategy. For example, a user doesn’t care which branch of government handles building permits. They just want to be able to apply online for all of their permits in the same place.
“When we talk about the user experience we have to ask how is the government best serving them? Design thinking is really looking at government processes and evaluating them to make sure we are using them as efficiently as possible,” said Garcia.
In 2014, the City of Oakland started a research and development process for the Digital Front Door - the City of Oakland’s project with Code for America. “The idea is to really look at and evaluate what the function and form of a city website should be. What kinds of digital services are we providing the community? What kinds of accessibility are we able to provide to the community? Once we figure that out, we want to know how can we blog that accessibility,” said Garcia. “We learned a lot in that research and development phase. We asked for feedback in the community around digital engagement. It was very interesting where we got feedback and where we didn’t.”
Learning what works best for a community helps enable engagement. “My college professor called these engagement points the 'N of the one,'” said Garcia. “What is the one data point that makes the whole dataset important? Human-center design is making sure we’re addressing issues with a lot of heart.”
Communities are used to seeing engagements done in-person. Townhalls, parks, event the DMV are in-person engagement points. But online the ability to engage is much more open.
“Can we create digital platforms and chatrooms and have that engagement online? In 2014, the City Clerk’s Office spearhead the reinvention of an engagement platform. The platforms ties together our assessment management process to the feedback process so that the feedback can actually inform decision making,” said Garcia. “This formalized process sets much better expectations between community members and the government. “
Engagement isn’t a new thing, but about online engagement still being tested. “I’m trying to do engagement in a digital space. I tell everyone internally, if we’re doing online and it doesn’t have an on the ground human impact, then we’re wasting our time,” said Garcia. “Getting folks on board that are actually on the ground is essential, so we’re coordinating our efforts much more tightly.”
Oakland is launching a civic design lab to bring all of these design-thinking strategies together.
“The Civic Design Lab is really going to foster communities of practice, bring in experts from the community around, user experience, web analytics and design thinking together,” said Garcia.
A Culture of Innovation
In Oakland the culture of innovation is very present. And here’s the kicker: they have implemented all of these changes without an office of innovation or a chief innovation officer. They made the changes because they wanted to better help their community -- a sentiment that is felt by many public servants.
“I’ve always known government employees really genuinely want to serve the communities, and really want to act in their best interest. You’re never a rock star when you are a government employee. You never become famous. It’s never one of those techy jobs,” said Garcia. “But what keeps me invested in government is I really believe that it does make an impact on people. There are people out there who really genuinely need the services that cities provide. I always joke about what my not so secret life as a bureaucrat is.”
There’s the myth of the bureaucrat as useless and unmotivated. “I think dispelling that myth is one of the things that keeps me focused on being a good public servant,” said Garcia.
Be sure to check out more innovations in GovLoop's new guide, 30 Innovations that Mattered in 2014.