How to Take Risks and Dismantle Disincentives for Change in the Public Sector

An interview on how Reboot came to be, what democracy needs now, and how (maybe) design can help us get from here to there.

Zack Brisson, Reboot’s co-founder and strategist-in-chief, recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Bernard Bull of the Moonshot Edu Show, a podcast devoted to innovation in education. The conversation covered a lot of ground; what follows is a selection from the interview, condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the story of Reboot?

A: Seven years ago we began with the core premise that human-centered design has a lot to offer the public sector in how it approaches problem solving, but we’ve evolved significantly since then. My co-founder and I were young, naive public sector functionaries who met at a government transparency conference in 2010. We shared common frustrations with the way policy is formulated and translated into services. After several months of complaining and problem identification, we asked ourselves: what can we do to problem solve? That led us to Reboot in its current form.

Our theory of change was to create an entryistic consultancy that would allow us to partner with like-minded reformers across public agencies, to bring forward new approaches, new methods, and new schools of thought on how to formulate policies and deliver inclusive, effective and efficient services.

Q: When you describe Reboot, you use the term “human-centered design.” Most of our listeners have probably heard of HCD but don’t necessarily use it or know what it looks like. Can you unpack this concept, as you approach it at Reboot?

A: We see it as a powerful problem-solving toolset that brings together a variety of disciplines and frameworks that can help navigate complex issues. Core to our experience is that we’ve found that translating human-centered design from the private sector requires a lot of work to make it relevant to the public sector.

At the end of my tenure in the DC swamps, I worked on a policy proposal for a comprehensive federal government-led response to the BP gulf oil spill. Very sadly the decision came back to say that we are not ready to invest in a robust response, because even if we do a great job, we’re not likely to win any of the gulf states in the next election, and if we try something ambitious and fail, we might lose some of the swing states.

That was a real lesson for me in what was going on behind that decision. In the traditional model of public sector problem solving, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on developing something very comprehensive and rolling it out at scale, without a lot of testing or R&D. Those initiatives are prone to failure, which creates a lot of risk and disincentives to tackle the problems that people really need solved.

That’s what caught my eye: The idea that this framework—which starts small, identifies a problem, iterates, tests, brings stakeholders along in an inclusive manner—could tamp down some of these disincentives to take risks in tackling complex issues. And that was part of the motivation for my co-founder and I to try to translate human-centered design to the realities of politics and governance.

Q: This makes me think of the idea that “ideation without insight and understanding often falls flat.” What is different about your approach, compared to older approaches to problem solving?

A: In the private sector, there is an old saying that one dollar spent in research and development is $10 spent at testing, and $100 spent at market scale. So they understand that the more you put in upfront, the more you’ll save in the long term. The reality in the public sector is almost the exact inverse: there is very little budget for research, design and testing, and large budgets allocated for implementation.

I can illustrate this problem up close: we were working with a state government in Nigeria, supported by the World Bank, to solve the problem that teachers were not showing up to school. Policy leaders decided the solution was to equip parents and students with mobile phones to report on whether teachers were coming to class. We were brought in to implement this solution, and right away we started saying no—there was no problem identification, no contextual understanding. Fortunately we convinced them to let us do a 6-week ethnographic design research study, with a large local team interviewing teachers, students, parents, policy makers, to understand why teachers were not showing up.

It turned out there were massive policy issues driving this problem. Teachers were assigned random school locations four or five  hours away from their homes. Wages were frequently not distributed, forcing teachers to get other jobs to pay their bills. You could have had the most robust surveillance tool, but you wouldn’t have addressed the problem, you just would have just had an expensive waste of time and energy. Instead our ecosystem analysis presented opportunities for policy interventions that were quite cheap and created incentives for teachers to be in the classroom.

When you dive into the context, the right points of intervention are usually not what you started with. If you’re not testing your assumptions, you’re not doing design right.

Q: Often times, time and money are invested in “great ideas,” without a contextual understanding of the problem. How can human centered design lead to different results?

A: This is very much a case of the “hammer in search of a nail syndrome”—we have these tools, and there’s a presumption that they will change outcomes. When we reframe with a design approach, we ask ourselves to define the problem statement, map out the stakeholder ecosystem, test and evaluate our process, revise our approach (as your first shot out of the gate won’t do the trick), and arrive at an informed intervention based on the context.

Q: IDEO is one of the organizations that many people think about when they hear design thinking. How is your approach similar or different from the IDEO approach and their toolkit for design thinking?

A: I have a lot of respect for the IDEOs and Frogs of the world. They helped pioneer what these tools can do at scale and we’ve learned a lot from and been inspired by them. But we are fundamentally in different businesses. They come from a private sector background and we come from a public sector background. One of the biggest challenges in bringing human-centered design into the public sector is that there is a different bottom line.

A quick example to show the difference is New York City’s redesigned 311 service, which allows residents to submit and track routine issues, from potholes to noise violations. It’s worked really well from the perspective that there’s been a huge uptick in usage. So by a private sector metric, the fact that usage has gone up, it’s a success.

But when you look at the analytics, it turns out the vast majority of users are from the most well-off neighborhoods of the city who already have the highest level of service delivery and a variety of the other means to make their needs known. And there’s almost no usage of 311 among the poorest and most marginalized communities in the city—it’s almost nil. So did we actually solve the policy problem of empowering the more marginalized communities who need the most help in surfacing the needs they have from the city? You can see that the bottom line approach to design from the private sector starts to go haywire when there are so many other considerations that go into what is a good, effective, inclusive public service.

Q: One more design question. I’m wondering what models, frameworks, people, and ideas have expanded your approach to design thinking?

A: We’ve had so many influences—and many are not from a design background. One of the things we’ve learned about translating these tools to the public sector is the importance of integrating design with established disciplines, from economics, to public administration, to health, to financial administration, to governance. A lot of what we’ve learned to do is work with and alongside these other disciplines to bring their speciality into the formula of the design process.

We’ve found that our sweet spot is to have our design team work as a “systems integrator.” So knowing how to bring the economist—who may not understand the ground level of communities but does understand broader macroeconomic trends—to the table in a process that might be new to them.

Voices from other fields have improved our work and challenged us to know that design isn’t everything. At its core, it’s a process, not a knowledge base.

Sometimes people get confused about that. It’s a way of thinking about problem solving and there are other pools of knowledge that are useful to bring into that problem-solving set.

Finally, thinkers like David Graber, an anthropologist, who wrote The Utopia of Rules, on the history and formation of bureaucracy, take the ecosystem approach to understanding how and why we have the outcomes we have today. And David Moss, another anthropologist who studies development institutions, looks at the “idiocracy that comes from bureaucracy.” Understanding the systemic level lens in how complicated public sector issues are addressed, and the human element to that, has been really influential to our team’s thinking over the years.

Q: When John F. Kennedy announced he wanted to send a man to the moon and back, many were skeptical. As I do with all of our Moonshot guests, I’d like to ask what your “moonshot” was.

A: Our current systems of governance are wildly outdated. We live in a world where the nation state is the principal organizing system for all political collaboration, and our institutional bureaucratic structures are descendents from paper-based systems of administration where information was scarce and costly. You don’t have to travel far to know that neither of those systems of power are holding up.

So I start with the frustration that I don’t see enough robust discussion about that issue.

What is a democracy 2.0, and even beyond that, what do alternatives to democracy look like? It’s almost taboo in my field to ask—Is there something that could evolve past democracy? I don’t know the answer, but my moonshot would be to drive that exploration a lot more deeply.

I don’t want to say I’m pessimistic about this; I do see emerging opportunity areas towards this idea of a revitalized democratic identity.

First, I’m very interested in the role of local authority. Design teaches us that people are better at solving problems the closer they are to those problems. There are amazing things happening at the municipal and subnational level all over the world. There’s a lot promise in decentralizing fiscal and policy decision-making to lower and lower levels of of government, and even non-governmental authority.

Second, for issues that are less local and more regional, like water rights or land use, I think we’ve underinvested in regional structures for a long time. There’s lot of promise from regional authorities, whether it’s the transit structures that did a lot to develop the US Northeast corridor, or fishing rights in the mediterranean. When diverse groups of people share a common interest they can cooperate in ways that transcend national borders in a meaningful manner.

Third, at the people power level—innovations that take advantage of technology and increased connectivity. For example, participatory budgeting, which has been piloted all around the world, invites citizens to have a tangible, informed voice in how resources are allocated in their communities.

These are exciting ideas that hold a lot of promise for reimagining the forms of government we have today. I’d like to see us go a lot further in taking these things seriously and socializing these ideas so they can enter mainstream policy discussion, so it’s not crazy to say, hey there might be something post-democracy that’s actually better than what we have today.


Futher reading.