Internal Champions, Beautiful Presentations: How Outsiders Can Help Governments Put People First

As part of the launch of a new Sunlight Foundation guide, Reboot’s designer Emily Herrick shared 3 “mantras” for collaborating with government.

With many cities releasing troves of official data freely to the public, the movement for transparency through data is facing a new challenge: How can governments work with communities in actually using that data to improve people’s lives? Last week, the Sunlight Foundation offered a new tool for anyone wrestling with that question, A Guide to Tactical Data Engagement, a four-step resource to help governments and communities collaborate to use open data for impact.

Because the guide is germane to so much of Reboot’s current work, we were excited to join the Sunlight Foundation in the public launch. Our Design Researcher Emily Herrick took part in a conversation (now available online) about how governments and their partners can put the four steps into practice. Emily shared tangible insights from our recent research with the City of New York’s Open Data Team, which has committed to bringing the benefits of publicly available data to everyone in the city. Our research helped the Open Data Team work toward that goal by reaching beyond the typical “civic tech” community and engaging people who are not yet users of open data—but who are well positioned to create impact (because of their specialized knowledge of local community issues or their communications skills, for example). During the conversation with the Sunlight Foundation, Emily shared the user personas we developed through that research, bringing these potential community collaborators to life.

In addition to sharing research insights, Emily also offered advice for other “outsiders” working with governments to solve city problems.  As an external partner—a social enterprise that works hand-in-hand with governments, using design as a strategic tool to spark innovation—Reboot has long experience with a unique, two-fold role as design researchers: Our first and most obvious job is to conduct rigorous research and develop insights for our clients. Our second job, less understood but equally important, is to ensure those insights make their way into the ears (and hearts, and minds) of the people within government who have the power to act on them.

For that second job—making sure findings on data- and user-driven approaches actually influence program design—we rely on the following three “mantras.” We’ve developed these principles through our years of work with city, state, and national governments, in places as seemingly different as Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya and Austin, Texas. These are relevant for any “outsiders” building partnerships across government lines to help them carry out the steps of tactical data engagement:

1. Start with one champion

It’s easy to think of government, or even an agency, as a monolithic, faceless institution. But it’s more helpful to remember that every organization is made up of individuals, who make decisions based on who and what they trust. In the context of our NYC user research, we were lucky to have an individual partner within the Open Data Team who was committed to the user-centered approach. This internal champion helped our team create trust across government agencies. With that entry point, we are able to create momentum to influence people in other agencies, and at other levels, who were not initially enthusiastic.

2. Research doesn’t end with the “end user”

With the NYC Open Data user research, we worked with three different agencies, each with different roles in the initiative. Each agency brought its own perspective and set of priorities for improving open data. So while our research was meant to help the Open Data Team understand the users and potential users of open data outside of government, we also needed to understand and align this other set of users—the stakeholders within government.

3. Beauty serves collaboration

One big way we align priorities among different stakeholders is by making the research as accessible as possible. So, instead of burying the findings of our research in a dense report, we created beautiful visual assets that government partners can relate to and understand. We presented these assets, along with insights and recommendations, in a workshop with all three agencies. This allowed people to absorb, push back, and ask questions about the focus area and the key use cases. We also created assets (personas, a presentation, and script) which the Open Data Team can use to drum up internal buy-in across the city government. This kind of effective, visual communication of findings and recommendations is essential for real collaboration as the initiative moves forward.

Emily shared more stories and details about these mantras during the conversation. Listen to the full webinar—which includes presentations from Stephen Larrick of the Sunlight Foundation; Kara Kratowicz of the City of Madison, Wisconsin; and April Urban, of Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development—here. Thank you to the team at Sunlight for including us in the launch of this helpful new guide!

Futher reading.