artists rendering of san francisco in year 2000 from 60's

I spent Saturday in downtown San Francisco at CivicDesignCamp, hosted and sponsored by Code for America and the SF Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. photo credit: Eric Fischer on flickr, from The City of Gold, CC by 2.0

HR Is Like The Government

You act like I’m saying that’s a bad thing.

I spent Saturday in downtown San Francisco at  CivicDesignCamp, hosted and sponsored by Code for America and the SF Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. The event was advertised as

“a one-day gathering of practicing designers of all stripes with local government officials interested in using design to improve the services they provide to citizens. Partly structured session format for skill shares and case studies, and partly unconference format for free exchange of ideas and challenges, the day will cover topics ranging from user research to service design to citizen engagement. The camp’s 100-125 attendees will be approximately half from government and half from industry; the goal is to create connections, share knowledge, and strengthen the emerging movement dedicated to creating better citizen experiences.”

I thought, “Hmm, government processes need to be reimagined. Design methods are a great way to view the issues. I think I’ll go learn about something I don’t understand.”

I was, more or less, the only ‘citizen’ in the room. It was an astonishing group of about 100 committed 20 and 30 somethings. There were designers of all sorts and various members of various parts of the San Francisco Government. There were a few slightly older consultants trolling for business.

You could smell the earnestness. And yet, there was not a single discussion about reimagining government.

The day opened with a short talk from a fellow from British Columbia. Apparently one of the leadership of the ‘civic design movement’, he’d flown in just to deliver his fireside chat. Big room bad acoustics made it a challenge to grasp his message. There were three really important things…

The thematic ideas for the day were government is brilliant caring people trapped in archaic systems; civil servants are masters of this remix discipline (meaning that they make things work that probably shouldn’t) and that everyone is a designer (and should probably get a trophy).

I was drawn to sessions on better communications with data. There was an intense conversation about fixing the city’s HireSF job board. I made it most of the way through the hour about ‘Using Stories to Portray Housing in San Francisco’.

As the conversations evolved, it became clear that the idea was to put a ‘new skin on the old snake’. Design in this setting meant trying to fix things by improving the user interface. The underlying theory is “you can improve user adoption by improving the interface.”

Unfortunately, that only works when the underlying solution is sound. Improving user experience without fixing the underlying problem is called ‘Putting Lipstick On A Pig”.

In the government universe, most web offerings are version 1.0. Missing revenue for nearly a decade, the folks at city hall have been busy fixing potholes and expanding the tax base. Essential services were low on the upgrade list. Since the recovery doesn’t seem to be extending to all tax payers, the bright and shiny stars of local government are trying to solve big problems with tiny resources.

You can understand the attractiveness of a discipline that promises to solve structural problems with cosmetic changes. It felt a lot like being in an old house that needs renovation with a plaster repair kit. Making things look and feel better is actually the opposite of solving the problem.

A fair question would be, “Can you get leverage by solving the problems you can with the resources you have easy access to?” That’s how most folks caught in this conundrum try to rationalize their existence. Unfortunately, even that very responsible approach misses the mark.

If you’re using scarce resources to make improvements to solutions that don’t work, you’re making things worse. The real problem is that the status quo is stuck in a mode that benefits entrenched interests at the expense of effectiveness. That’s always the problem.

Always. The. Problem.

And the answer is always “Figure out a thing that you can do that gets results while upsetting the apple cart.” Resources flow to demonstrations of effectiveness. An improved version of the status quo requires no more investment.

The answer is always bold, individual action built on a solid root cause analysis. Then you have something to apply improved design to.

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