A New Office Integrating Design, Technology, and Policy for Local Government
The City of Austin has launched a shared approach to user-centered design, iterative technology development, and collaborative policymaking through its Office of Design & Delivery, which has grown to include over 25 experts in service design, interaction design, content strategy, web development, and agile product management. Through cross-disciplinary teams spanning design, technology, and policy, their teams have improved outcomes in public safety, public health, and digital transformation.
How do you use design and technology to improve outcomes in local government? A lot of energy and excitement has been put into this challenge over the past five to ten years, with mixed results. The City of Austin founded Austin's Office of Design & Delivery as a new approach to this challenge, purposefully leaving "technology" out of the name of the title, and emphasizing "delivery," as that's what the City found public servants to be hungry for: innovative solutions that actually deliver.
The City's "odd" office has six core principles at the heart of everything we do (also available in more detail at odd.austintexas.io/how-we-work):
1. Put residents first
Start with residents, not technology. Connect with the community about their needs and expectations, and test and refine solutions with residents.
2. Prioritize equity when planning features & functionality
Seek equitable outcomes when improving workflows and technology across city departments to ensure the needs of residents are truly being met.
3. Recognize that digital services require teams and competencies, not just software
Support research, design, delivery, and integration with expert teams and by empowering non-traditional designers and technologists.
4. Cultivate a community of learning
Cultivate learning opportunities for civil servants and residents across disciplines, departments, and sectors.
5. Champion iterative, data-informed methods
Adopt an agile approach to technology and workflow design that uses prototyping, testing, and iteration to learn and improve over time, rather than "redesign".
6. Support vendors that can prove value to residents
Choose software one piece at a time, and avoid contracts that lock us into specific solutions, contractors, or vendors. Default to open source.
The office is organized into three core areas – a Service Design Lab, modeled from the Service Design Studio in the NYC Mayor's Office of Economic Opportunity (and built in collaboration with NYC), a Policy Lab whose initial focus is the user-centered policy for accessibility in the digital era, and the development of alpha.austin.gov, providing iterative, user-centered digital services that grow and adapt with resident needs.
To date, the Office of Design & Delivery has designed, prototyped, and delivered new services for Austin's Office of Police Oversight, Office of Public Health, Office of Homelessness Strategy, Department of Watershed Protection, Office of Sustainability, Resource Recovery, Municipal Court, Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services, and Parks and Recreation. This rapid growth is a function of its cost-recoverable funding model, allowing the office to quickly grow with demand for its services from departments across the city, and the development of an active recruiting and hiring pipeline from Austin's thriving design and technology sector.
Throughout this work, the team has invested in the continual support and buy-in of the larger organization, leading "funshops" to train staff on the fundamentals of content strategy and sponsoring the "Civic Futures Awards" to highlight the work of changemakers throughout the organization. https://civicfutures.io/awards
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The City of Austin's approach is broader than the traditional "digital services" model, investing in the capacities of service design, content strategy, and policy co-creation to solve for the broader challenges of why government services struggle to perform.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Office of Design & Delivery has launched and is growing in its ability to improve outcomes across City of Austin departments and initiatives. The Office looks forward to the opportunity to advise other local and regional governments on how to build on their learnings, sharing learnings through conferences with the US Conference of Mayors, Route Fifty, and Code for America. One of thefounders, Ben Guhin Delphine, was recently hired to model on these efforts for Brown University and the State of Rhode Island.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Collaborators included City departments, such as the Office of Communications & Technology Management, Development Services, Resource Recovery, Emergency Medical Services, Public Health, and Police Oversight.
Community partners have included the Austin Justice Coalition, VAMOS Austin, Austin Tech Alliance, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, Austin Downtown Alliance, Texas Campaign for the Environment, and other organizations recommended by Council Members and community partners.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Among the Office's key users, stakeholders, and beneficiaries are civil servants across the City of Austin. Our model integrates their perspectives and expertise among the most important aspects for success in any project or initiative, designing conversations and workshops as opportunities for co-creation and co-design.
Austin's residents are our primary beneficiary, and we have formalized processes, policies, and position descriptions to support continued research and testing directly with residents.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
In the first 18 months, the Office of Design & Delivery has launched several high-impact services with benefit for residents as well as government stakeholders, including new opportunities for residents to submit complaints in English and Spanish about interactions with Police Officers, opportunities for residents experiencing homelessness to get trash collection from the City of Austin, and an accessible, mobile-friendly platform for digital services at alpha.austin.gov
Challenges and Failures
The work of establishing this office faced challenges in the bureaucratic hurdles against creativity and curiosity in the public sector. Many managers and executives felt certain about "how things work" in government and dismissed the idea that we could hire experts in service design, product management, and web development to work for the city and deliver the next era of city services.
To overcome these disagreements, organisers continually pushed in a spirit of prototyping and testing, demonstrating through iterations that better recruiting and hiring in local government is possible with the right approaches and expertise. Three years ago, people were telling the City that this was impossible. Now it is the clear path forward.
Conditions for Success
To be successful, the Office recommend support from leadership toward new approaches to staffing, budgeting, and delivery. The bureaucratic hurdles here are real, and span a need for support across HR, budget, communications, and technical infrastructure.
The cost of a new staffing program is also significant – in the US, this corresponds to about $2M annually in salaries and benefits, which might not be possible for smaller governments, though we're interested in testing out regional coalitions to pool funding for this purpose.
The Office of Design & Delivery is currently working with Brown University and the State of Rhode Island on opportunities to replicate the success of this innovation, and have spoken with several other governments about how to learn from its success.
Through the New America Foundation, Code for America, and other partners, we've shared our position descriptions, hiring processes, and project management materials to support similar efforts across state and local governments, and launched our first Civic Futures Summit in 2019 to share practices across the region, partnering with design and technology leaders from New York City and Washington, D.C.
The best work in the complex world of public sector innovation comes through the efforts of multi-disciplinary teams. Over the past three years, we've continued to be tempted by the idea of hiring a single talented individual to work on an important effort, and are always reminded that this was a mistake. Working in public policy requires diverse perspectives and skillsets, and our efforts thrive when building on our model of design, technology, and policy shared across teams.
Another learning is that working inside of government – vs in the private sector – can allow you to be be honest about what works and doesn't. This is a true joy in how you can lead and motivate your teams in a spirit of transparency and continuous improvement.