We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.
Depending on your definition, we’re 10 years into the “open data revolution,” and starting to learn a thing or two about what it takes to solve problems at the community level using publicly available data. We’ve all seen that simply pushing out datasets doesn’t work. Making those datasets user-friendly and putting them on easy-to-use platforms is a step in the right direction…but still isn’t enough to turn accessible data into tangible impacts on people’s lives.
Many city leaders are eager to move beyond the glimmer of open data to pursue a new future for open government initiatives that are more tangibly tied to solving specific problems. But we’re woefully short on concrete proposals for what that looks like in practice.
We took on this topic during Reboot’s panel at the first ever SXSW Cities Summit, featuring Hadassah Damien of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Mary Tobin of the Brownsville Partnership, and Adrienne Schmoeker of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data and Analytics.
We thoroughly enjoyed leading this vibrant discussion among voices representing government, activists, and civil society, which pointed a way towards a new, ecosystem-oriented model of collaboration. This new model represents an evolutionary shift in thinking, allowing groups that are usually opposed or isolated from one another to come together and solve problems through collective action—using inclusion, empathy, and teamwork.
We’d love to talk with others who have experience or interest in doing this kind of collaborative work to bring together groups along the data-to-impact cycle; to learn more or to share your experience, email us at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here in New York City, we’re wrapping up Open Data Week—a series of conversations and workshops about how cities can “open” their official datasets for public use. As my colleague Zack wrote earlier this week, we are at a major turning point for the open data movement, as forward-thinking leaders understand: To create impact, open data must be demand-driven. We at Reboot are working with partners and cities to put this shift into practice, by engaging individuals and advocacy organizations in the design of data initiatives, so that data resources are directly connected with true citizen needs.
This conversation resonates with me on a personal level, because last fall, I watched people create and use data to make decisions that affected their own personal safety during Hurricane Harvey. I want to contribute to this important conversation with three ideas for how cities should think about data, drawing from what I saw.
I grew up in Houston, which experienced catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Harvey last August. The storm dropped more than 50 inches of rain over four days, overflowed bayous, submerged freeways, damaged over 200,000 homes, and displaced thousands of people, including friends of mine who had to be kayaked out of a two-story house.
I was visiting family when Hurricane Harvey hit, and two days after I arrived, we evacuated to Dallas. As Harvey ravaged my hometown, we streamed Houston news stations constantly, but few of them reported from the area my parents lived in. So we used the Harris County Flood Warning system to monitor real-time data on the inches of rainfall and bayou overflow in my parents’ neighborhood. I was impressed with the reliability of this official data system, as we cross-checked it with reports from neighbors, but became even more inspired by the amount of unofficial citizen data generated and shared.
During and after the storm, I was amazed to realize how many people were making and using data to inform urgent decisions. Most of these weren’t civic tech hackers or specialists. They were ordinary people reporting information as they saw it and sharing it as widely as they could.
Most of the data that I saw shared and reshared on social media took the form of simple Google tools. Spreadsheets, like this one for hotels taking FEMA vouchers and this one for translation needs at shelters, were easy to keep up-to-date which was crucial amidst a constantly evolving disaster situation. People shared Google forms and used Facebook pages to coordinate volunteer rescues. Most of these resources also relied on crowd-sourced data, and needed to allow a wide range of people with various levels of data and computer literacy to contribute their knowledge. In this dynamic, a simple Google spreadsheet—that could be easily shared and updated by many people in real time—became a powerful tool.
There are people doing incredible things with data, like these visualizations and interactive maps published in The New York Times. While these beautiful presentations are useful for communicating with wider audiences after a disaster, they’re not necessarily models for cities focused on distributing actionable information in an emergency situation. In non-emergencies, too, cities thinking about impact should remember that very simple applications of data can be elegantly effective.
Cities can also draw from readily available and existing data: For example, in many places that regularly deal with flooding and water issues, there are already meters in place that can sense water levels. These can feed into simple, publicly available digital maps to help people plan their evacuation routes. That’s how the Harris County Flood Warning System map (which my parents and I were monitoring during Harvey) worked. The map didn’t present this data elaborately. Instead, it focused on a few types of useful data and allowed both citizens and newscasters to monitor the situation citywide when they were unable to physically get to many neighborhoods.
During Harvey, ordinary people were engaging with data as both consumers and producers.
When cities are working to open data, many of them are very focused on the technical aspects and privacy implications of releasing their internal sets; others are concerned that too few residents have the capacity to process and work with data in meaningful ways. But the flood of resources shared on social media over the course of this disaster demonstrated just how much useful information citizens already have access to and need.
A recent article in Governing Magazine pointed out the inefficiencies that happen when governments aren’t willing to engage with citizen-created data—and used Hurricane Harvey as an example. The article described the CrowdSource Rescue site, a volunteer-run map that helped first responders identify stranded residents, but which operated in tandem with a government-run effort. “The inability to share data on who needed to be rescued led to redundant efforts from volunteer and government responders,” the authors say.
While the danger of duplication is greatest during a disaster, when the needs are timely and immediate, it’s a good lesson for any city government. Supporting ordinary people to use data to solve problems doesn’t have to be only about releasing government data sets. The open data movement should be looking for ways to coordinate with the projects that people are already putting their effort into and the knowledge and resources they’re connected to. Governments can identify where this data already exists, and build from there, instead of recreating it. By doing so, they can not only better identify citizen needs for open data, but also leverage the power and knowledge of ordinary people.
In Reboot’s recent work supporting cities in developing demand-driven open data initiatives, we’ve strongly encouraged leaders to focus resources on people who are connected to advocacy or community groups, who also have a fair amount of data capacity—they are able to access, provide, translate, and facilitate data for others to use. For example, the user personas we created for New York City to understand the current and potential users of open data emphasize the role of the “Influential Interpreter,” as one of the key players in the data ecosystem.
I was impressed to see the same thing was true during Harvey. A volunteer civic tech group, Sketch City, crowd-sourced information about resource needs at different shelters, and compiled it into a live map for those looking to help. As the Sunlight Foundation described, Sketch City was able to build on open data from the city and county with citizen inputs to create a realtime connection between shelters and donations so that resources could be effectively funneled to those in need. These types of data facilitators can help bridge the technology and data literacy gaps to elevate citizen voices and knowledge.
For a city responding to a disaster or just seeking to solve an everyday problem with data, this also means that resources from other places may be available. After a hurricane or other event, many people want to help—those with data skills can support other communities by lending expertise and time in processing and making data available.
Seeing the willingness of Houstonians to help their neighbors—whether by rescuing strangers, volunteering to tear out sheetrock, or creating and sharing useful data—reminded me just how proud I am to be one of them. It also showed me that anyone truly can create and use open data. Coming away from New York City’s Open Data Week, I hope we all commit to broadening the circle of open data producers and consumers, and increase the resilience of our city in the face of both the next big storm and the daily challenges of building a more just and equitable city.
One of the long-running dangers that can trip up social change practitioners is something I call the “Field of Dreams Fallacy.” It happens when an institution decides to make an investment in any new tool without real input from the people it’s trying to serve. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mobile feedback tool or dashboard, a co-creation workshop or community of practice, or any of the countless other innovative approaches and technologies that have emerged in the past 50 years. If an institution barrels ahead with an “if you build it, they will come” approach, the impact is likely to fall short.
I’m thinking about the Field of Dreams Fallacy because it’s “Open Data Week” here in New York City: series of conversations and workshops examining the movement to make official government data “open,” or freely available online. Reboot is thrilled to be participating in Open Data Week, because open data can be a powerful and important tool. But it’s also one that has been especially prone to the Field of Dreams Fallacy in the past decade—this week is a big opportunity to push the entire movement forward. It’s time to start focusing our data efforts on users first.
New York City is a true pioneer in data transparency. And like other leading cities around the country, the City is well aware of the Field of Dreams Fallacy, having already found that simply making data available is not enough.
In 2012, city government passed a law requiring all public data to be freely available online. While making progress on that ambitious goal, the City has also updated and refined its approach by making a commitment to “open data for all,” recognizing that data is only “open” if it is accessible and useful for everyone. In that effort, the City is finding innovative new ways to understand not only who is currently using its data, but who has the highest potential to use it—and to find new ways to engage those activists and community leaders.
Cities all over the country are running into the consequences of the Field of Dreams Fallacy. For a long time, cities have measured their progress on open data in terms of how many datasets they’ve released. A growing number of conversations reflect the realization that this metric is not enough: The data is open, but there is not enough articulated demand for it to be frequently used to drive tangible change.
But in searching for solutions to this problem, too many leaders are still focusing on the data and technology. A number of cities still measure success in terms of datasets downloaded, which doesn’t really capture whether the data was even useful. It’s still a “supply-driven” approach, which starts with the question, “What data is available that we can open?”
It’s time instead to start asking, “What problems do our residents want to solve?”
Reboot has been working to understand and improve the ways governments and citizens use data as tools for problem solving since our founding. We developed the first sub-national open-data portal in sub-Saharan Africa, studied the national open data portfolio in Mexico, and conducted a scoping study with the Open Society Foundations to examine how well government data initiatives understand the users of their data (the answer was, “not always very well.”) We’ve seen many positive examples of innovative governments that genuinely seek to engage residents, and we’ve also seen the pitfalls of proceeding ahead on a data initiative without real clarity about the actual people expected to use the data.
For years, we have also worked with city partners on better approaches. While the approach depends on the constraints and goals of any particular city and its residents, broadly, we see the solution as starting with the users, and involving them throughout.
For example, we recently partnered with the City of Madison, Wisconsin and the Sunlight Foundation to take a user-centered approach to data. The City was in the midst of updating its development plan, called “Imagine Madison,” and gathering resident feedback about priorities for the city. The City’s data team wisely started with that feedback, and residents’ expressed interest in “complete neighborhoods,” in taking a new approach to making its data useful.
The report from that work is now publicly available; it includes a list of “Data Use Cases,” which shows in practical terms how data can be useful to civil society, such as “To prove my point” (when advocating for policy change) or “To make program decisions” (when deciding how to allocate resources). These kinds of plain-English uses for data are a good starting point for cities looking to improve their approach to data.
The Field of Dreams Fallacy is not just about data. As humans, we tend to fall into this trap with any new tool. That’s why Reboot’s core, foundational principles include “start with the user;” it’s our way of ensuring that our solutions are always targeted directly at real-world impact.
Because if you build it, they may not come. Instead: Invite people first, and then build it together.
I’m excited to talk more about our demand-driven approach during Open Data Week:
Many city governments are “opening” their official government data—making it readily available, so that everyday citizens can use it to solve everyday problems. But there’s a hitch, as I wrote about last November: Success isn’t just about opening the data. It’s about meaningfully connecting the right data to the people that can use it.
Today, I’m pleased to share a new story of how one city is seeking to do just that. Reboot, Sunlight Foundation, and the City of Madison, Wisconsin have been collaborating in recent months to understand how Madison can improve its “data to action” ecosystem. Specifically, our goal was to find opportunities for the city to better align the data it releases (and the support it provides) with the needs of community groups focused on neighborhood development issues.
Along with Sunlight, we conducted interviews with 36 people, including local activists and community representatives; academics; city staff from multiple departments; local media, direct service community-based organizations, and large nonprofits. We synthesized their responses, looking for themes and patterns to pinpoint where the city’s open data resources could make a difference.
Sunlight’s report on that work is now available online, including a new set of user personas, valuable tools for helping governments understand who those “everyday citizens” really are, so they can match the city’s data offerings to their needs.
These personas are part of our growing body of research into practical applications of data in people’s lives. As the Sunlight Foundation put it:
While our engagement with Madison will focus on one specific opportunity, this process is showing the city’s team how they can better connect to the information needs and experiences of residents in the future. As Madison continues to support opportunities for the community use of data, either around complete neighborhoods or other issues in the future, we hope city staff will remain engaged and enthusiastic about resident engagement around open data.
And we hope that enthusiasm will spread to cities everywhere.
Read the Sunlight Foundation’s full post—including detailed user personas like the “City Staffer” and the “Disseminator”—at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog.
Reboot was founded on storytelling. First are the human stories, gathered through ethnographic research, which drive all our strategy, design, and implementation work. Finding, synthesizing, and elevating the voices of people who are usually unheard is how we counter the typical top-down, design-by-numbers approach to policy. Equally important are the stories from our work—both lessons learned from challenges, and case studies of success. We share these stories with other idealists and reformers to show that there is no one “best practice” or magic bullet; our work is a series of thoughtful experiments in response to a changing world. The way we tell our stories is part of how we change the hearts, minds, and long-entrenched processes of powerful institutions.
During this seasonal time of reflection, I’m excited to take a look back at Reboot’s seven-year history—and share our story in a new way. I’ve gone back through our work over the years, and gathered photos from projects that embody something essential about our years of growth as an organization. I’ve pulled these together in this “Reboot Album,” as a different way of looking at the lessons we’ve learned.
In our first year, we learned to channel our anger.
We started Reboot because we were angry at the great injustices and vast inequality in the world. We saw these injustices as systemic, and we believed that change required tipping the scales of power, so that ordinary people—and marginalized voices in particular—have a meaningful say in the processes that impact their lives. Through Reboot, we set out to work with leading public institutions (where power concentrates) to design policies and deliver services that are accountable to the people they serve.
We had a bold vision for the world we wanted, but we also knew our limitations: We needed to work within the realities of the public sector. In our second year, we tested those boundaries in all directions. We worked with a broad range of partners, from multilaterals and INGOs, to private sector and Fortune 500 corporate social responsibility initiatives, to academia, local non-profits, grassroots organizers, and hackathon buddies. We also tested a range of working models, including fee-for-service, receiving grants, making grants, and pro-bono engagements. This year set a tone for how we would work for years to come: Stay curious and nimble, continuously experiment with possible paths to impact, refine our model and tactics accordingly.
Suddenly, we knew we were doing something right. We were not only getting opportunities to do bigger projects with greater impact, we were being invited to share and spread our methods across major institutions. For example, we published a Design Research Guide for media development practitioners, as part of a collaboration with Internews to help the organization evolve how it designs programs, starting in Pakistan. Similarly, our fiscal ethnography work in Nigeria—which challenged traditional ways of addressing corruption—influenced World Bank practice, opening new ways to address the mismanagement of public funds. Reviewers at the World Bank called our work a “breath of fresh air” and “one of the most impressive studies in recent years.” Another, a lead public sector specialist, recommended this work be used in future staff trainings.
After three years of hard work (and too many seven-day workweeks to count), we saw that we needed to step back. We had just led a 10-organization consortium to implement the world’s first mobile voter registration and elections management platform in post-revolution Libya, and aspects of the project had taken a toll on us. Our work was not sustainable at the pace we’d set, and so we took a close, hard look at everything we were doing and why we were doing it. This was hard: Learning to slow down, when the challenges facing us seem so pressing, was really difficult. But we knew we had to manage our growth and invest in ourselves.
I started this post talking about storytelling; in year five, our ability to communicate grew exponentially. Over five years, we had made a strong case for why public institutions needed to better hear their constituents, and we had a compelling body of evidence of the impact possible when they did. Beyond the what and the why, we now also had the how: We had proven approaches and tools, including MyVoice, our award-winning tool for using citizen feedback to improve public services. And we saw that we needed to double down on our advocacy and communication efforts, to make bigger change across the field. Without advocacy, we could only drive change on the projects we worked on; with advocacy, we could create ripples in the pond.
By year six, we had an ample body of work, and saw that we had an opportunity to specialize—honing in on domains that were extremely influential on the social contract, and where we already had deep experience. And, of course, since we first set off, the world had changed—citizens now had more ways to organize around their interests, digital data had made it easier for governments to share information about their work and for others to analyze it, and the information landscape had evolved—and we recognized that to have greater impact, we needed to seize these new opportunities.
As we expanded last year, we grew at two levels: the local and the systemic. At the local level, we invested more in our domestic work; we have always done projects in the U.S., but in the political climate of 2017, we’ve been called to invest more in our home of New York City and around the country. In an era of post-trust politics, we are partnering with organizers and governments to solve problems using data and facts. We are strengthening protections for vulnerable populations, especially those affected by the criminal justice system.
To have more systemic impact, we recognized the need to build alliances and movements around the values we hold dear. We’d helped stand up a global initiative for civil society strengthening, and were excited about the systemic and ongoing impact being realized. And so we are helping build and strengthen a coalition of investigative journalists in West Africa, supported the global open contracting movement in mapping its forward path, and helped the Wikimedia movement define its 15-year vision for the world’s leading open knowledge platform. And while multi-stakeholder strategy and movement-building exercises can often be messy and abstract, we developed structured processes that grounded each in the tangible: the concrete needs of those that will be affected.
The current global trend of growing tribalism is fundamentally opposed to Reboot’s values. We believe that all people are interconnected, and humans hurt each other when we don’t understand each other. So change begins with empathy and self-awareness: We must understand those that are different from us, and take responsibility for how our own actions (or inactions)—as countries, communities, or individuals—contribute to others’ well-being or suffering.
To develop such understanding, we will continue to tell stories and ensure those stories inform change. This work is hard and slow, but Reboot is lucky to have allies who share our values. In the past year, 60% of our work was with repeat partners, and another 30% came through referrals. In a time when the world seems to be splintering, we are grateful for long-term relationships with those who share our commitment to bottom-up approaches to designing our future.
In the coming year, we are looking to expand our channels for storytelling. To counter insularity and fear, we need broader, cultural change. And so we will be looking for new ways to tell the stories of those among us that suffer most—as well as our complicity in perpetuating suffering and our possible roles in alleviating it. And we want to find new ways of mobilizing others, beyond our current allies, to join us. We’re just starting to explore ways of doing so; if you have ideas for us, we’re all ears.
This post is co-authored by Lauren Gardner of Reboot and Kathrin Frauscher of the Open Contracting Partnership.
We’ve all been there: We leave a major convening with the lasting impression that the breaks were the best part. Building relationships with peers and colleagues is a huge motivator for many of us deciding to attend an event, and community-building is a goal for many organizers. But when time is limited—as it always is—the opportunities for people to talk to each other are the first to get squeezed.
In the world of civic innovation and good governance, enormous resources funnel into events. There is value in bringing people together to spark collaboration, build consensus, and develop long-term communities. But we’ve all been to events that fell short of these goals: Long, dense PowerPoint presentations. Lots of talking, with a limited sense of progress or accomplishment. Especially where organizers are the stewards of public funds intended to improve lives, these missed opportunities are a frustrating waste of precious time and money.
So when we get the chance to design a convening, how do we take the best part—talking to each other and working through shared challenges—and move it out of the sideline and into the limelight?
We’ve been wrestling with this challenge in recent months, as an inspired group of open contracting pioneers—the Open Contracting Partnership, Hivos, CoST, B Team, Article 19—have prepared for this week’s Open Contracting 2017, engaging Reboot as the design and facilitation partner.
Open contracting is the idea that governments can improve the way they contract with private partners. Governments spend huge sums of money through contracts, for everything from buying pencils to building airports. Modernizing these contract processes—by publishing and using open, timely data on spending—can reduce corruption, foster entrepreneurship, and improve people’s lives.
Open Contracting 2017 brings together more than 200 government accountability influencers and innovators from dozens of countries, seeking to take this idea and collectively articulate the solutions and approaches that will guide its development in the future. It’s an opportunity to build momentum and a shared vision for this idea to continue to grow and have impact.
Participants are already creating impact with their work. CAHURAST-Nepal is training and developing tools for citizen monitors to hold their government accountable on procurement data in Nepal. The Africa Freedom of Information Centre is working with the Ugandan government to evaluate and improve their online procurement portal so that it can be better monitored by civil society. And Development Gateway has been assessing the impact of the widely-used Open Contracting Data Standard to inform its next evolution toward even greater contracting transparency.
As we’ve designed this event, we have been focused on the idea that the “breaks are the best part.” We have been working through the questions that face any convener and designer: How do you balance the power dynamics between everyone in the room, so that people feel like part of a cohesive group? How do you ensure that the event offers participants something relevant and actionable to their individual daily work, while also working toward higher collective ambitions?
This is especially important because open contracting is still a new idea. Excitement is high, but there are people who may not yet see their place in this work or oppose it, while others have been living and championing open contracting for years. Our challenge is to bring all of these diverse colleagues into the same safe and creative space to build a vision together.
As we head to Amsterdam this week, we are sharing three key steps that we have taken to advance that goal.
Five different organizations are convening Open Contracting 2017. These allies come from different parts of the open contracting ecosystem, and represent different organizational sizes, ways of working, and priorities. The process of planning began by coming together to clearly establish what is most important.
The overall goal of the event is to articulate a five-year vision for open contracting. For all of the conveners, it is critical that this vision come not from them, but from the participants—the people that have been doing the good, hard work all around the world. From the beginning, the conveners expressed an admirable commitment to designing a participatory and responsive event, one that would give participants the space to actively design together and establish this vision.
But even with this broad alignment, it was still necessary to reach consensus about the specifics of these goals. One of the big tools for doing this is establishing shared success criteria. There are always going to be trade-offs later in the design process; together, we started out by agreeing on the criteria we would use to evaluate those trade-offs.
A workshop is like any design exercise: It has to be based on the needs and desires of the people who will use it. Early in the process, we sent out a survey to conference participants to better understand their work with open contracting, what problems they’re facing now, and what they’d like to get out of the conference; we also followed up with selected participants to probe more deeply into their needs and interests. Based on this research, we developed a synthesized report on participant feedback, which guided the design of the event.
Among other things, we found that most participants are hungry for practical, actionable steps they can implement now for small wins. They also want to make the case for open contracting—ways they can convince political actors and spread the word with the general public. And many want to know how their governments are doing in this sphere relative to others.
In many cases, participants’ stated goals aligned with those of the conveners. The main difference was in degree; participants expressed more interest in short-term guidance, while conveners were focused on long-term vision. But with both of these clearly expressed, we were better prepared to create an event that balances both.
In designing the event itself, we went back to our core goal: Taking the energy, collaboration, and sense of action that make the breaks the best parts of other events, and infusing it into as many aspects of this one as possible.
The resulting workshop design does offer unstructured time for chatting, but it also balances small group break-out sessions throughout the day, where participants will be doing design exercises. We’ll all be getting our hands dirty, working through tangible problems that relate to our work, and we’ll come back together as a group periodically to discuss and synthesize together. Our hope is to build momentum, and leave feeling inspired.
Of course, we need to be ready to change as we go. A conference is carefully designed, but as facilitators, we also have to be responsive and adaptive to the group in real time. Fortunately, we are walking into a room filled with smart, passionate people and we are beyond excited to see what this group comes up with.
As much as we are looking forward to Amsterdam, we know this convening is just a means, not an end. The conveners are committed to following up with participants and continuing the momentum beyond the event itself. The vision we establish together will guide years of work and collaboration. We hope this gathering is one that participants will look back on fondly, but we also hope that the “best part” is yet to come, in the impact that open contracting has in improving governance for all.
Editor’s note: another version of this post was published on the Open Contracting Partnership blog.
Because Reboot’s mission is good governance, we frequently work on projects that promote “open data,” probing and testing the limits of the idea that official government data can be used to address everyday citizens’ problems. In this work, one of the most consistent challenges we’ve found is in answering the simple question: “What is open data—and why does it matter to me?”
Civic tech experts and many policymakers are deeply familiar with the concept of making records of 311 calls, housing information, construction permits, and other kinds of official data freely available to anyone. Our research has shown that this is most powerful when ordinary people understand—and feel excited about—the usefulness of datasets to their lives. Data can help people start a business, choose where to live, improve and green their neighborhood, advocate for fairer housing policies, and much more.
To raise that crucial awareness, we have found that it is best to tangibly demonstrate how data can accelerate important work that is already being done to achieve local residents’ visions. That’s why we are pleased to announce a new project in Madison, Wisconsin, which we hope will offer exactly that kind of tangible demonstration.
In collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation and the City of Madison, Wisconsin, Reboot is conducting research and workshops this week with local organizations to spark ideas for how open data might support their work—and provide a useful case study for cities everywhere.
We are specifically looking at how Madison can foster more “complete neighborhoods,” an opportunity that emerged directly from city residents. As the Sunlight Foundation writes:
“Community members in Madison, Wisconsin want to make their neighborhoods more “complete.” Rather than having to drive long distances to get what they need each day, residents want the city to foster areas where homes, grocery stores, schools, and other daily needs are accessible and convenient for all.
At the same time, Madison’s city government is relaunching its existing open data program with a focus on connecting to resident needs. The city adopted an open data ordinance in 2012 and has built an open data platform, but realized that city open data could do more to empower residents and make an impact.
Open data from city hall can likely help Madison community members advance citywide goals, such as a desire for more complete neighborhoods. But how?”
That’s what we’re seeking to answer right now. We recently wrote on this blog about the Sunlight Foundation’s “A Guide to Tactical Data Engagement,” a new tool for governments interested in working with communities and data. Our work together in Madison is part of the first-ever pilot of the four-step approach detailed in that guide.
You can read more about the guide, and how it will apply to our work in Madison, in the rest of the post on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog. And we’ll be sharing more updates and insights from that work over the next few months—hopefully, it will be another tangible demonstration that we can use to spread the word, and the excitement, about Open Data for everyone. If you want to learn more, follow the conversation on Twitter with #TacticalData and sign up here for Reboot’s quarterly newsletter, and we’ll send you the results of what we find!
Photo credit: Left, Jonathan Hartsaw via Flickr. Right, Steven Larrick.
This post is co-authored by Zack Brisson and Laura Freschi.
Reboot has long straddled several different worlds: Our user-centered design approach comes originally from the field of product design, developed in the private sector. And our public sector work comprises both multi-national partners, like the World Bank and UNICEF, as well as local leaders from Austin, Texas to Edo State, Nigeria, in cities and subnational government agencies all over the world. We work across multiple spheres of influence, because we recognize there’s more than one leverage point to drive public sector innovation and create more resilient and user-centered institutions.
Working with counterparts at national, state, city, and community levels, we’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on how external actors can best intervene in complex governance systems to help societies inch forward to be more democratic, participatory, and open. We’ve also reflected on the equally important question: At what level is it best to intervene?
Next week, Reboot will be exploring this question as part of the annual CityLab Summit, where mayors from more than 30 global cities will gather with other city-focused leaders and academics. The purpose of the CityLab Summit is to discuss city-level solutions to global challenges—like how to alleviate poverty, how to use the power of big data responsibly, or how to increase civic participation. As we pack our bags for Paris, we’ve been pulling together resources from our past work, at all levels, to share with local-level visionaries. In the spirit of cross-sector collaboration, we’ve put these resources together in a “Plane Reading List” in this post.
But first, we should explain why city-level work is so important.
There’s a bit of a paradox at that heart of how public sector policies are made, versus how socio-economic change happens.
The development economist Bill Easterly has long criticized this paradox in the field of international development, which is one of Reboot’s areas of expertise. The development industry works and thinks largely at the level of the nation state, in part because the members of global institutions (the World Bank, the United Nations) are country governments. NGOs and development agencies most commonly have “country offices,” with “host governments” that are national governments. When we look for development data to set baselines and chart progress, we are most likely to find it at the country level.
And yet this national-level approach is mismatched for the actual work these institutions seek to do. Countries are primarily political units, not social or economic ones. And socio-economic development happens most tangibly at more local levels: the metropolitan area, the city, and even the neighborhood.
This insight—that the most palpable change happens at the city level and below—comes as no surprise to Reboot’s many partners working at the local level, like the New York City (USA) agencies we’re supporting to make city data more accessible, or the civil servants we supported in Elgeyo Marakwet (Kenya) to hear citizen feedback more clearly. The policies, vision, and managerial skills of leaders at the local level make palpable differences in the lives of residents.
In any city, a mayor’s decisions—from short-term emergency response to the long work of changing “business as usual”— create changes that residents see right away. And residents, in turn, are able to respond to those changes in ways that mayors and others can feasibly hear and (theoretically) incorporate into future policies—creating what’s called a “feedback loop.” The feasibility of feedback loops, combined with mayors’ relative autonomy and their discretion over city budgets, have meant that many cities are now global leaders in good governance and innovation.
In recent years, Reboot has worked on many projects at the city level; we’ve seen first-hand how visionary city governments can bring together multiple stakeholders to develop both the solutions for urgent problems AND the trust needed to make those solutions happen. The City of Austin, Texas, for example, did this as part of its participation in the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pilot (a great example of national-level work experimenting with impact at the local level). We also supported Nigeria’s Edo State to do this as part of releasing Africa’s first subnational open data portal.
As we’ve worked with these and other local-level leaders, we’ve found that many are wrestling with the same challenges we’ve seen at the national level: If you’re a civil servant, how do you create new ways of working within entrenched bureaucracies? If you’re a member of civil society or other “outsider,” how do you influence the way government insiders work? And for both sides, how do you find constructive pathways for dialogue and collaboration? How do you leverage the power of data to solve real-world problems? How do you collaborate with the media to inform a robust and inspirational public dialogue? In other words: How do you achieve your mission?
We’re looking forward to discussing these questions in detail with city leaders and innovators in Paris this weekend. Here are the resources we’ve pulled together to bring with us; whether you’re heading to Paris or just planning to follow the conversation on Twitter, we hope you’ll find some of these resources useful!
We’re excited to gather many more resources from Paris! If you have another favorite, please share it with us on Twitter @theReboot—we’ll be updating this blog post with more as we go.
It’s been five years since New York City passed a pioneering law: The city now requires that ALL public data sets be made freely available to the public. NYC has made great progress on fulfilling that requirement; the most recent annual progress report has all the details.
But here’s the big question: Who is actually using all this data?
Reboot recently tackled this question—one facing cities all over the world—in collaboration with the City of New York. Through design research, we uncovered a wide variety of current and potential users of city data.
City and civic leaders who focus on making official data available to the public—known as “open data”—have a tendency to focus their attention and efforts on a niche community of civic hackers and tech journalists. Famous examples like I Quant NY, a blog which uncovered a systematic problem of illegal parking tickets, are exciting and tangible, but they can give the false impression that “if you don’t have the skills, you don’t have a role.” In other words, it can often seem like people who don’t have advanced data analysis capabilities (which is the vast majority of people) don’t have any reason to use open data, or to even think about it.
Reboot’s new research shows otherwise. We partnered with the Open Data Team within the City of New York to conduct user research with both existing and potential data users in the city. Importantly, our research didn’t focus just on using data, but rather on using data to solve problems. That’s because city data only matters if it makes residents’ lives better.
Viewed through that lens, it’s clear that data analysis skills are only one piece of the process. To use data to solve a problem, we need people who can identify the problem and communicate the solutions, as well as those who can collect, clean, and analyze the data. That’s why we like to say that open data is a team sport. For cities who want to truly unlock the power of open data, it’s important to engage and empower a well-rounded team of residents with a variety of skills.
So today, we are sharing a key output from our research in NYC. To introduce the City’s staff and leaders to the wide variety of people who can use open data, we developed six user personas (composite portraits based on multiple research subjects, commonly used in design). These are a visual, easy way to understand the many kinds of users with potential to benefit from data.
These personas are based on New Yorkers, but we believe they are widely applicable to any city that wants to extend its commitment to empowering residents to use data to solve real-world problems. We’re pleased to share this slideshow of the six personas as a free resource:
You can read more about this project, and how the City of New York is continuing its visionary work, in our case study. And if you’re working with your city to unlock the power of data (or to get more data to be freely available), we want to hear about it! Reach out to us on twitter: @theReboot
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:
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.
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.
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!
“Open government for us is a coyuntura,” explained David, the leader of a civil society organization in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was sitting in his office with my colleague, Ana Maria, conducting one of our daily ethnographic interviews. “Coyuntura?” I asked. I’d been a student of Spanish for over a decade, but had never heard that word. David and Ana Maria explained that the English word for coyuntura is “juncture”—but that translation doesn’t capture its full meaning. David had used coyuntura to describe a point at which different human, capital, and material resources meet and make things possible. Our conversation on that autumn day in Guadalajara stuck with me. As coyuntura has slipped as a loan word into our English-language reports, it has raised a critical question for me. Is there a way to not only navigate language barriers, but also use them to our advantage in our work as development professionals?
Language barriers are intimately familiar to me. Growing up speaking both Swedish and English, I quickly learned about the power of communicating fluently in two languages, but I just as quickly learned that meanings could be lost or mysteriously transformed when I switched from one language to the next. A simple one that usually tripped me up was the word eventually; the Swedish equivalent is eventuellt, but it means that something might or might not happen, whereas the English word connotes that something certainly will happen.
Linguists have been publishing studies about these incongruences for decades. While the subtle differences between similar words might not seem consequential, the truth is that linguistics has real implications for development work. Take, for example, a recent study published in the Scientific American that found that reading statements requiring a moral judgment in a foreign language—rather than participants’ native language—led participants “to place greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments.” In other words, if we hear something in a language we don’t know well, we may focus more on the what than the why of another person’s decision, especially in a gray area, ultimately decreasing our empathy. These shifts in moral judgment have certainly affected negotiations between politicians of different countries at a forum like the UN, or complicated conversations between an American doctor and a Spanish-speaking patient. As development practitioners, we need to be alert to how language barriers can affect our decision-making.
At Reboot, appropriate language use and comprehension is at the heart of our qualitative research methods. Ethnographic methods require in-depth conversations to capture experiences; when these conversations happen in an unfamiliar language, we need to carefully process them to check for biased interpretation and pull out meaningful insights. Our work takes place in a variety of linguistic contexts, and often involves close collaboration with locals who speak English as a second or third language. To do our work well, we have to take measures to mitigate language barriers, and caveat what might be lost in translation.
To do this in many instances, we rely on the acquired language abilities of a permanent staff member. This certainly has drawbacks; for one thing, consider how dialect and slang are so variable in terms of geographic origin. I experienced this when I took notes in a focus group with Mexican and Dominican women in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as part of our research with the New York City Mayor’s Office. Having studied Spanish in Ecuador, I understood the Mexican dialect readily. But I found it tricky to follow along the entire conversation because the Dominican dialect shortens the endings of most words. For example, when saying, “we go to the city,” Dominicans would say vamo a ciudá instead of vamos a la ciudad. In that research, to fill in the details I relied on our local researcher, a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in the community for 10 years.
Which brings me to another measure we take to navigate language barriers; we often engage native speakers as key members of our research teams. These local researchers not only act as interpreters, but as connected community members with deep understanding of the local context and customs. The local researchers do more than just translate words; they explain how and why those words are used in order to deepen our research insights. In Mexico, for example, my colleague Ana Maria helped me contextualize coyuntura in a way Google Translate never could.
However, the local researcher introduces another set of linguistic obstacles. Nuance can easily be lost in translation between the Rebooter and the local researcher, from the local language to English as well as the other way around. For example, in a recent training session for a Wikimedia Foundation project with local researchers in Brazil, the English phrasing of the project objectives and methodological terms did not easily translate to Brazilian Portuguese. This is why we approach training as an ongoing process throughout the project, rather than containing it in a one-day workshop. As we work closely to uncover, discuss, and resolve different interpretations and approaches to understanding people’s lives, we are able to not only translate but also adapt Reboot principles and methods to the local context.
It’s important to overcome language barriers, but the term “barrier” can also be misleading; while a shared accent can be an invaluable connector, in a different way, so can a different dialect—or even a different language. These differences may cast the researcher in the role of an “outsider,” but that role can open new and deeper lines of questioning in surprising ways. Since my native language, Swedish, is spoken by a population the size of New York City, I often fall into that category of the outsider. But as an anthropologist, I’ve found that I can use this role to ask questions about aspects of a language that native speakers take for granted; it often allows me to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a particular context unique.
And that’s what happened with the word coyuntura. If it hadn’t been foreign to me, I never would have reacted as I did, and connected with David during our interview about our different interpretations of the term. The untranslatable quality of the word ignited a conversation that helped us bridge understandings, rather than add to the misunderstandings.
Approached in this way, differences in language can serve as a bridge to connection, rather than a barrier to communication. Lauren Collins recently wrote an article about learning to speak her French husband’s native language; as she poignantly put it, “If first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.” The international development community has been lacking an open conversation about language comprehension—related to ways we overcome the subtle moral, psychological, and social barriers that language can create, as well as ways to leverage those barriers into bridges. I’d love to talk more about this with practitioners who are experiencing such barriers and bridges: I invite you to not only share the challenges of language barriers, but also the unexpected opportunities they present in their inevitability. Share your thoughts with me on twitter, ethnography slack, facebook, or instagram with the hashtag #languageisabridge!
Editor’s note: TL;DR: please vote for our SXSW panel! Here’s why.
There’s a new kid coming to next year’s South by Southwest conference (SXSW). In March 2018, everyone at SXSW—whether they’re holding an Interactive, Music, or Film badge—is invited to join a convening focused on cities and the innovative ways they’re solving complex societal challenges. Our partners in the City of Austin are helping organize this Cities Summit, led by Mayor Steve Adler. As our national politics flounders, this is an important opportunity to use the convening power of SXSW to draw attention to some of the unsung heroes of city innovation.
City-level innovation is a core focus here at Reboot. From our work with the OGP Subnational Pilot (where we first partnered with the City of Austin) to acting locally on global issues like criminal justice reform and open data here in our hometown New York City, we know that cities are often where the social contract is most tangible. Cities have the power and proximity to design (and redesign) services in close collaboration with the people who live there. Everyone should be paying attention to how cities are working to solve challenges we face worldwide.
So today, we want to highlight a couple of the groups who have proposed panels for the Summit. For those who aren’t familiar with SXSW’s “PanelPicker®,” it’s a quick process, but it means a lot—the public online voting counts for about 30% of how each panel is evaluated for eventual selection. Once you register, you can vote for as many panels as you want, so please take one minute to help bring these visionaries to Austin next March before the deadline of Friday, August 25:
We hope to meet all of these people at SXSW in March 2018.
And to that end—we hope you’ll vote for our panel, From Publishing Data to Solving Problems, too. Reboot has gathered an amazing group of New York City leaders for a conversation about how New Yorkers can use city data in their lives. Our co-founder Zack Brisson will join Adrienne Schmoeker of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data and Analytics; Mary Tobin of the Brownsville Partnership; and Hadassah Damien of the Participatory Budgeting Project and Femmetech. We’ll discuss new user research and share tales from the trenches on how real people are using the City’s wealth of free official data to shape their city.
See you in Austin!
Tweet this: How is open data changing lives in New York City? Vote for @theReboot’s #SXSW2018 panel to find out: http://bit.ly/2iqHpje
Tweet this: These #SXSW2018 panels on #cityinnovation deserve your support. Register and vote today http://bit.ly/2iqHpje
From explanations of why Black Lives Matter is a critical movement to the spin room after the second Presidential Debate, implicit bias was all over the headlines in 2016. The dozens of think pieces explaining implicit bias—attitudes or stereotypes we unconsciously associate to others—and how it affects everyday life got everyone talking about something researchers already know: Bias exists. We grapple with it in our work every day. We know it comes from multiple places, including the researcher, the subject, and the environment. Recognizing biases, and keeping them in check, is an ongoing process. And the stakes are high: Research affects policy, policy affects people.
Although we cannot eliminate biases—jumping to conclusions is part of normal, healthy mental functioning—we have a duty to acknowledge them and to account for ways bias colors our interpretations. Neglecting to acknowledge and account for bias throughout a research process leads to an extension of status-quo thought patterns and actions. Lack of action is not a neutral position; it is a decision to leave hegemonic power structures unchecked. But how do we design bias checks into the design research process?
I’m a nerd for the philosophy behind research methods, and even did a master’s degree in Research for International Development. This critical training has given me a base to evaluate methodology—but sometimes my internal conversation bends to the theoretical. When I came to Reboot, I was excited to learn how my colleagues built bias checks throughout the research and design process in practice. I spoke to several team members about how they account for bias in their work, and saw how checking for bias is a continuous part of all Reboot research. Below I’ve shared three broad time points (among many) when we account for bias in our work.
Every project at Reboot starts with background research on the issue we’re working on, context we’re working in, and actors we’ll be working with. This stage is a good time to think about how we will build bias checks into the project as a whole and take note of biases that influenced previous research on the topic. Some researchers argue against doing too much background research, suggesting instead that a beginner’s eye is an advantage because it allows for a completely fresh perspective. However, that “fresh perspective” will still be biased by previous experiences—not to mention the value of learning from what’s been tried and what’s worked or not and why. Background research helps ensure that we think holistically about the research question, build on prior experience, and think critically about our own and others’ biases.
Desk research helps inform which political-economy considerations, institutional and cultural ways of working, and additional structural factors (not captured in regression analysis) may need to be considered in our approach, as well as which methods are best suited for investigation. As we get deeper into field research, we are always ready to assimilate new insights and adjust based on both our desk research and real-time data collection.
For example, during background research for a project on teacher absenteeism in Nigeria, Reboot saw that past interventions on the issue had been overly individualistic and punitive, which put blame on teachers for being absent and didn’t explore structural or contextual factors. The assumption was that teachers were the problem. This assumption was an important plot point because it affected how teachers were viewed by their employers as well as the community, which was, to put it bluntly: lazy. However, the actual experience of being a teacher was not interrogated or addressed. Recognizing that bias may have influenced past interventions on teacher performance, we widened the study’s aperture to include larger systemic and structural challenges that affect teacher motivation and the perspectives of teachers, parents, and government officials. Among other things, field research uncovered that teachers felt disempowered by the teacher placement process, an insight useful to education policy-makers interested in better motivating teachers. Background research can be a good place to check bias, including biases that may have inhibited the success of previous interventions.
Checking biases doesn’t stop with the research planning phase. Reboot continuously checks while conducting research to ensure ongoing data collection and analysis is bias-aware. One way we do this is by hiring local researchers—that is, researchers from the community or context we are investigating—for every project, including for projects in New York City, where many of us are based, and those in other countries where we are nonetheless fluent in the local language. Inputs from researchers within the community can trigger valuable reflection for the team, particularly when a local researcher’s interpretation of an event or conversation is different than the Rebooter’s. Differing interpretations are often rooted in biases held by one party, and unpacking these biases may lead to a new insight. Yes, local researchers will also be biased; because everyone is. However, they can help balance the insider and outsider perspectives, interpretations, and viewpoints that are especially thorny to manage in qualitative research.
In our recent work with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and the Government of Jalisco, Mexico, we worked worked with local researchers to conduct interviews throughout Guadalajara. During the hiring interview for one of the local researchers, we asked what she thought about the local civil society landscape. She responded that it is practically non-existent. Once we got into arranging and conducting interviews, however, we came across respondents who were actively engaged in an incredibly vibrant civil society community in Jalisco. As we discussed these data points in synthesis, our local researcher acknowledged that perhaps her previous assumption about civil society being non-existent was based on an unconscious bias of what she though civil society looked like—sleek and well-resourced NGOs and foundations, instead of the grassroots activists in her community. She noted that she had changed her view through the research process, celebrating aspects of her community she had previously taken for granted. Reboot used this insight to begin building stronger inroads and connections between those active in civil society and those unaware of its presence.
Prototypes are another valuable tool for checking bias. Through the prototyping process we are able to elicit biases or assumptions in ways that aren’t always apparent in a conversational interview format. That’s why Reboot builds prototypes throughout our work, not just during the official “prototype” stage of the design process. In our recent work with OGP in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya, using prototyping helped the team learn in a way that added nuance to primary research insights while also avoiding narrowing in on one solution or assumption too early. Insights from iterative and continuous research and prototyping can feed into each other.
In Elgeyo-Marakwet, we worked with the County Communications Department to create a simple prototype: A visual map, made with ordinary markers and paper, of a proposed new process for gathering citizen feedback. The team then brought this visual prototype to other relevant departments—for example, discussing feedback about transportation with the Department of Roads.
Although the prototype was based on user interviews with the Department of Roads, the new visual sparked more constructive conversations. The visuals gave participants a tangible example; as a result, they elicited clear, nuanced feedback from counterparts. Through the prototype, the team discovered that they had made a few assumptions that conflicted with the operating procedures of the Department of Roads. Building a visual process map helped get all the stakeholders on the same page—instead of remaining stuck in their separate biases—early in the research process. The result was a more integrated feedback process between citizens and multiple government departments.
In Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that our brains are constantly trying to put new information in the context of existing thought patterns. He calls this inherent function the “associative machine,” and it’s an important part of our evolutionary learning process. As toddlers, we learn not to touch a hot oven by getting burned. When we see different stoves at our friends’ houses, we don’t have to touch them to learn whether we might burn ourselves.
While it keeps us safe, the associative machine also builds false associations based on something we learned in one context, or at one time, or with partial information. This means we are susceptible to bias as part of our normal mental functioning. We will never be free of biases, and we don’t have to feel bad about having them. We also can’t let them run our lives or color our work—we shouldn’t let them drive our worldview, our actions, OR our research unchecked.
As researchers we have great power to tell stories through our work, and therefore a great responsibility to the people who share their lives with us. The only way for a researcher to get glimpses outside of his or her worldview is to build bias checks throughout the research cycle; reminders that we are all associative machines. It sounds like learning how to dodge bullets in the Matrix, right? But you’ll be surprised—bias checks are like the red pill. Once you start looking, you’ll see your own bias everywhere—and doing so is critical to waking up, fighting Agent Smith, and changing the world for the better.
There is no single version of “open government.” Yet in very diverse circumstances, government and civil society leaders engaging citizens to increase transparency and accountability tend to encounter some similar challenges.
In our recent work with five of the 15 cities and states in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) subnational pilot program, we saw an opportunity to provide some targeted guidance to help working teams make the leap from the open-ended, wide-ranging work of gathering citizen feedback and exploring commitment options, to narrowing and prioritizing those options to develop coherent action plans. As we worked shoulder-to-shoulder with OGP partners tackling homelessness in the city of Austin, Texas and streamlining citizen feedback on WhatsApp in the county of Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya, we observed two challenges that frequently emerged at this key inflection point: 1) Distilling citizens’ top priority needs, and 2) Balancing stakeholders’ ambitions with practical feasibility.
In response to these common challenges, Reboot is pleased to share a new process guide we created specifically for OGP working teams to use as they develop their action plans. This guide supports open government champions in the hard work of refining and prioritizing commitments; it’s designed specifically for working teams as they transition from consultation to commitment development, and is intended for those who have already completed the public consultation process.
The guide, developed in partnership with the Hewlett Foundation, is geared towards creating multi-stakeholder workshops, but the tools and advice inside can be used in multiple working formats, including one-on-one conversations and workshop series. Inside, you’ll find advice and tips based on Reboot’s practical experience, with questions like:
You can download the PDF of the guide, “Prioritizing & Refining Commitments Toward Open Government,” at this link:
Some working teams may wish to work with this guide as a Word document—allowing you to write directly in-line with the content and tailor it to your specific needs. If you would like a working copy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will happily share! We are also here to answer any questions you have.
There is no single version of open government. We hope this guide will help more teams work through the common challenges of co-creation—forging true partnership between governments, civil society, and other stakeholders—to deliver open government commitments that are both ambitious and feasible.
I recently witnessed the participants in a panel discussion collectively agree to avoid the word community. Early in the event, which was about art and society, one person mentioned that community is overused by nonprofits and has been co-opted by corporations, used as a synonym for “consumers.” After briefly debating imperfect alternatives — group? people? — the panelists came to a tacit decision. They would continue to use the word, but apologize for it each time, which forced them to say things like, It was beautiful to see the community (sorry!) come together.
I sympathized with the panelists’ dilemma. I work with social change organizations as a writer and editor, and I’m frequently part of these kinds of debates. Can we say impact, or is that meaningless? What’s a good synonym for thought-leader? As I watched the panelists apologize for a word while still using it constantly, I started thinking about whether (and how) any of us who care about language can retire words like these ones that have become so core to the vocabulary of particular fields and schools of thought.
Right now in city council meetings, advocacy group conferences, and media pitch meetings all over the country, a healthy debate is percolating about the word citizen.
The promise of open government is unlocked when diverse actors work together toward a common vision. It requires engagement by citizens, government, civil society, the private sector, and others with a stake in good governance. Yet while collaborators may share values of transparency, participation, accountability, and innovation, the actual practice of co-creating solutions to advance these ideals can be messy.
Reboot is honored to have supported five pioneers from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) subnational program in co-creating their open government roadmaps. The resulting commitments and action plans are remarkable. They prioritize citizens’ pressing needs and interests, and amplify past gains made by government and civil society reformers. They seek to strengthen local capabilities and institutions, and have therefore won widespread local support.
From our collaborations, we’ve surfaced some insights on what leads to successful co-creation; a sample is shared here, illustrated with snapshots from our remarkable partners. The issues each grappled with will be familiar to anyone working in open government, and we hope that their approaches to addressing the issues will inspire. Finally, we were excited to see OGP release co-creation standards to help strengthen government and civil society collaborations on the open government agenda, and we hope these stories help illuminate those guidelines.
Successful open government programs don’t start from scratch—they align with existing political mandates and institutional assets. By building upon current initiatives, and taking advantage of windows of political opportunity, initiatives can have more widespread and sustainable wins.
In 2010, Kenyans voted to pass their country’s new “people-centered constitution,” lauded as one of the most progressive in the world. Central to the new constitution was the promotion and protection of citizen participation at all levels of government decision-making.
The County Government of Elgeyo Marakwet, led by its first-ever governor, has embraced the spirit of the constitution. The County allocates a majority of its annual development budget based on citizen input received in public meetings. It has also established an office of public participation, passed legislation to enshrine citizen input in development planning, and championed innovations in citizen engagement. County executives, for example, monitor dozens of hyperlocal WhatsApp groups to surface and rapidly respond to urgent citizen needs, from collapsed bridges to medical emergencies.
Elgeyo Marakwet’s embrace of citizen participation in policymaking is commendable. But its enthusiasm for public participation—by multiple arms of government, at multiple intervals in various planning processes—has resulted in participation fatigue. As a result, executives now struggle to get the volume and quality of citizen inputs they need to inform their work. And in terms of development outcomes, the return on investment in all these public participation efforts is yet unclear.
As such, the County used OGP as a platform to unite policymakers, technocrats, civil society, and international partners in pursuit of a longstanding priority: the refinement of public participation practices for greater efficiency and impact. As one of its OGP commitments, Elgeyo Marakwet is now developing and piloting new frameworks and approaches for more effective public participation in local governance. To do so, it is analyzing its own extensive experiments with citizen engagement, and drawing on those of fellow co-creators, to answer the question: When, and under what conditions, are what types of public participation more effective?
Their results will be valuable not only for the County, but for others seeking to advance participatory governance in Kenya and around the world.
Collaboration between diverse stakeholders is key to realizing open government’s potential, but doing so is easier said than done. To motivate and sustain their participation, it is critical to define the unique value each actor brings to the table—and the tangible benefits each stands to gain.
Co-creation is hard. It requires collaborators to invest additional energy in working with new actors through unfamiliar processes. To do so, individual collaborators need a clear sense of what they stand to gain. Yet in open government, the value of co-creation is often celebrated in the abstract, and not necessarily defined in concrete terms.
When the City Government of Sekondi Takoradi Metropolitan Assembly (STMA) began defining its open government roadmap, it did not blindly embrace co-creation. Rather, it sought to identify specific areas where collaboration with outside actors would add unique value.
Resource mobilization is a key priority for STMA—as it is for all governments—and an area where support from businesses is critical to success. Recognizing this, the government sought to leverage the expertise and networks of private sector associations in defining new opportunities to raise public funds. Together, they piloted a new tool to collect input from businesses on how STMA could better support them. The process also revealed gaps in the current approach to setting business tax rates that, if addressed, could increase internal revenue generation.
This experience highlighted the tangible benefits of co-creation for both the public and private sector. In its OGP action plan, STMA committed to continued collaboration with businesses in areas of mutual interest. These successes have been recognized by the national government, which is now considering adoption of the private sector engagement approach piloted in STMA.
Don’t underestimate the value of old-fashioned conversation. Get diverse stakeholders to engage in face-to-face dialogue—and help them get personal. Unearthing shared values and building trust early in a co-creation process lays the foundation for future collaborations on thorny issues.
To define its open government roadmap, the Provincial Government of Ontario designed a multi-phase public consultation process. Citizens submitted 46 ideas to advance transparency, accountability, and citizen participation, then voted on a shortlist. As inclusivity was a key value championed by the government, activities were done online to enable participation from as many Ontarians as possible.
The shortlist was rich, but needed input from the government actors that would be responsible for their execution. The mandate developing under the OGP banner was also significant, and would benefit from contributions by civil society.
Ontario thus held a series of workshops to prioritize and develop plans for top initiatives, attended by nearly 100 stakeholders representing government and civil society, as well as private citizens. While many had previous experience with Ontario’s open government work—and would be involved in implementing its OGP action plan—most were new to each other. As such, the value of the gatherings was not just technical, but also social: Building relationships between these prospective co-implementers, and defining a common vision, would be critical to realizing Ontario’s open government ambitions.
The workshops were carefully designed and facilitated. Early activities focused on drawing out participants’ individual (not organizational) motivations for pursuing this work and helped highlight shared personal values. Technical exercises were dynamic but highly structured. helping focus conversations on the why’s and how’s of the ultimate vision, and not the what’s of the task at hand—a common challenge when diverse actors co-create.
Inspired by the experience, many non-government participants volunteered to help drive forward Ontario’s OGP commitments. Such high levels of citizen ownership and buy-in are now proving valuable in advancing the reforms ahead.
Many people want to contribute to their communities but don’t know how. By identifying untapped and fragmented interest, and directing it toward specific opportunities, open government leaders can stoke unexpected and fruitful co-creation.
The residents of Austin, Texas, are known for their civic pride and activity. In 2005, the city’s volunteerism rate was 10 percent above the national average—but it has since steadily declined. There are several possible contributing factors, including the city’s recent population explosion. From 2011-14, over a quarter-million new migrants settled in Austin, many of whom are unfamiliar with local issues or how to help shape them. The population also skews young, and is heavy on millennials who, statistically speaking, volunteer less than previous generations.
Yet despite common media narratives about millennial apathy, the City Government believed that these citizens were an asset to be mobilized. They were highly educated and many worked in technology. In short, they had ample talent and ideas to contribute—they just needed a cause to believe in. And Austin thought open government may be just the thing.
The government thus kicked off its OGP work at a civic hackathon popular with young citizens. At the event, city officials explained Austin’s vision for open government, outlined possible paths to achieving it, then asked for support from those present.
The rallying cry worked. Participants were eager to contribute, and immediately began tackling the City’s open government to-do list. Over the course of a weekend, they conducted design research on citizen needs, helped refine Austin’s OGP goals, and identified priorities for its open government roadmap.
The community built and the insights generated at the hackathon continue to guide the City’s open government work today. They also illustrate the magic possible when latent energies are channeled toward worthy causes. In doing so, savvy open government leaders can build coalitions with diverse talent and do more with less.
Open government reformers tend to dream big. But for ambitious visions to lead to tangible impact, they must be grounded in a robust understanding of current capabilities and constraints.
The State Government of Jalisco had grand ambitions for its open government work—and the passion and skills to realize them. A series of early wins had built momentum around open government across the state, and the OGP working team was keen to respond to the growing interest.
Yet they soon realized they risked becoming victims of their own success. To achieve their vision for open government, the working team needed to link their vision to existing institutional interests and resources and possibly scale back their ambitions. To determine how to do so, they first enumerated the various (and ever expanding) set of open government priorities, ongoing activities, and incoming interest. Then, they mapped the list against the mandates, expertise, and capacities of partners—current and potential; government, civil society, and private sector. Finally, they examined the political climate and other contextual factors that may impact the feasibility of individual initiatives.
All the opportunities were potentially impactful. But only those that could be assigned adequate human and financial resources, and that had a conducive enabling environment, were prioritized; the rest were put on the back burner. While this meant that Jalisco could not pursue all its ambitions, it knew that those it did pursue would deliver on their promise—the ultimate goal for any open government program.
The 2016 OGP Summit in Paris was a remarkable event for many reasons—for us at Reboot, we loved seeing so many of our visionary and tenacious government collaborators come together to share experiences, help each other troubleshoot challenges, and inspire each other. For us, it’s clear that going subnational is imperative if open government is to realize its promise of fighting injustice and improving the lives of citizens around the word.
In the weeks ahead, we will be sharing more about our approach to co-creation—specifically in the context of OGP action plan development—and we look forward to working with our partners both here in New York City and around the world to advance more transparent, participatory, and responsive government.
As part two of a series reflecting on the Principles of Digital Development, this post focuses on “an example of one or more challenges or barriers” to integrating the Principles into our work. (Read part one here.)
Recently, I found myself at a development conference in conversation with a woman who worked for a multilateral aid agency. We were discussing an introductory user-centered design workshop she had just attended, where the organizers had passed on a library of design tools for participants to take back to their organizations. This donor was particularly excited to apply a mighty design tool, the user persona, to the work she does, and I was particularly excited to hear her singing praises of a design-driven approach.
As a service designer with a practice grounded in user-centered design (UCD), I am glad UCD continues to pervade the development sector. It is a powerful method that can help build more impactful solutions; that’s why Reboot is proud to endorse the Principles of Digital Development and uses design-driven methodologies in our work. But, more often than I would like, what surfaces in discussions like these is the development sector’s over-reliance on the products used to operationalize UCD—the guiding principles, tools, and templates—and an underappreciation for the process.
This affinity for productization makes sense. It democratizes user-centered design and makes it accessible to any organization. But extracting tools from the process may yield the UCD method meaningless—and it makes us wary of potential backlash.
Our organization often works shoulder-to-shoulder with implementing agencies, service providers, and policymakers to design new approaches to development, and demystifying the design process is vitally important to us. As outside collaborators, we work hard to ensure our partners don’t just get excited about the products of user-centered design, but also understand how to use them in practice.
This past October I traveled to Elgeyo Marakwet, a small county in Kenya, about an hour-long plane ride northwest of Nairobi. Elgeyo Marakwet is one of five pioneers in the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pilot Program that Reboot has supported to bring citizen voices into the creation of a transparent, participatory, and accountable government reform agenda.
As we began our collaboration with the county government, we took time to understand current open government priorities and looked for ways to build on to existing initiatives. Through exploratory interviews with government staff, Reboot quickly discovered an opportunity for the communications department to increase citizen participation by formalizing an existing, but informal, channel of communication between citizens and the county executive.
Our partners explained that staff at every level—from the Governor to department directors to frontline service providers—had been giving their WhatsApp numbers to citizens, and receiving all kinds of feedback in return. Citizens sent WhatsApp messages to alert government staff about health clinics that needed restocking, unsafe bridges that needed repair, and government contractors that were behind on civic projects—all incredibly valuable information that would have been expensive for the government to obtain through other means.
Effectively, a citizen feedback and monitoring network had developed organically, at zero cost to the government. The downside of this informal channel, however, was the government response. Staff struggled to keep up with the cascade of new information, and many requests were left unanswered because citizens did not always provide adequate or actionable information.
In all of this complexity there was a clear opportunity to use this feedback to improve service delivery and promote government accountability by designing a set of internal protocols and organizational processes around WhatsApp. Rather than building a public services feedback and issue tracking system from scratch, we would help the government find a way to more constructively collect, filter, direct, and respond to the feedback that was already flowing in.
Commonly in UCD approaches, a team of external design experts takes the lead on solutions like these. Guided by sound principles like “Design with the User”, the team gathers inputs from key users and synthesizes this data—using design tools like user personas—to “develop contextually appropriate solutions informed by user needs.” But here’s the hitch: the designers usually end up retaining control of the actual design process, missing a key step to ensure solutions are owned by the users they are designed for.
Getting a solution to really stick often requires continuous adaptation and iteration, most of which happens after outside design teams, like ours, go home. This is why, whenever possible, we make sure our partners are part of the team from start to finish. No matter how hard a team has worked to design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows, when we design in this vacuum, we fail to provide implementing agencies the right skills to test and adjust this solution over time. In my work, I have found that this knowledge is not learned by handing over templates or prescribing a set of principles to follow, but by teaching implementing agencies to use these tools and principles in relation to a design process.
In Elgeyo Marakwet we decided to do just that. The Communications Department and I worked through a three-week user-centered design training as a model for how a design-driven approach could apply to their work. Rather than teaching user-centered design with a fictional problem—which can come off as trite or non-transferable—we focused on helping the team apply the design process (complete with tools, principles, and templates) to this feedback problem they were already struggling with. Our shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration was intended to create both a more contextually appropriate solution and to embed a philosophy of testing and iteration within their day-to-day workflow. I brought my experience and design expertise; but they solved the WhatsApp feedback challenge.
Though the results proved stronger in the end, leading this group of passionate government innovators through the design process also added an additional layer of challenges for both parties to sift through.
I needed to achieve a delicate balance between designer and teacher. I had to rapidly synthesize data about current WhatsApp norms to get up to speed with our partners, while also letting go of some of my initial design hunches to ensure the team was guiding the direction of the solution. For our partners, they had to learn how to tinker with a system that they themselves were embedded in. They needed to see past their own perspectives and understand from a bird’s eye view how the system operated.
For example, I began a lesson on the “Discover” phase of the design process with a discussion on how different people might use technology in a variety of ways—which would affect anything we designed. Through this discussion, staff quickly saw that they carried strong assumptions about how citizens and civil society groups use WhatsApp. Their assumptions were influenced by their past experiences and narrowed to their own perspectives—instead of a true understanding of how these other actors behaved.
As designers, we constantly discipline ourselves to check our biases to develop a holistic understanding of context; but what about addressing similar misunderstandings within the agencies that are implementing solutions? Working through the design process allowed our government counterparts to develop the skills to see past their perspectives and biases.
Developing these skills takes practice. Through the three weeks, government staff got a chance to conduct ethnographic interviews with government service providers. They got to hear from from citizens and civil society groups who also use WhatsApp to gather and organize citizen feedback. They got to ask detailed questions, analyze what they heard, prototype solutions, and revise those solutions based on additional rounds of interviews with their colleagues and citizens. Each step of the process allowed them to gain experience in these skills while also widening their understanding of what was possible.
The final product—a revised process and internal protocols that ensured departments were empowered to respond to citizen feedback and integrate it into future service delivery—was more versatile and better suited to the context than anything an outside team alone could produce, no matter how much time they took to understand the problem, the users, and their constraints.
Editor’s Note: The City of Austin, Texas was recently chosen to participate in the Open Government Partnership’s pilot program for champions of open government at the state and city level. Reboot is proud to be a fan and supporter of this pioneering team.
These past few weeks following the U.S. presidential election have given us pause as we reflect on the role of civil servants as stewards of public trust. We have seen how, at the macro level, the mere word “government” can evoke compulsive scorn, even as we in Austin have worked hard to build trusting relationships at the local level between civil servants and civil society.
In the years ahead, local governments have an important opportunity—and responsibility—to redefine government. Our commitment to openness matters now more than ever, as we work to renew our social contract, one tangible, human connection at a time.
The drive for transparency and greater citizen participation in Austin isn’t new—we’ve got lots of feathers in our open government hat. Our selection for the OGP subnational pilot program has prompted us to think about how we can build on previous successes, and how we can share those lessons with other governments.
We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to make OGP commitments that redefine the relationship between people and government as a means for co-creating better outcomes, such as with Ending Homelessness in Austin. This effort departs from the traditional and misguided approach of criminalizing homelessness in cities, which further marginalizes those living on the street, disconnecting people from each other and their government, and deepening the crisis in a revolving door of jails, emergency rooms, and shelters. Instead, through continuous and adaptive systemic changes, the Ending Homelessness Coalition in Austin works to build pathways out of economic and personal crises for residents experiencing homelessness. Together, we at the City of Austin join them to help create equitable opportunities for an entire community.
To ground our approach in connection, we started the effort with the most humble but vital of acts—listening. After six months of ethnographic immersion, coalition building, and experimentation with cross-sector teams, patterns began to emerge, and possible solutions became clearer.
Based on the lessons learned, the City Council authorized a full year of the Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST) pilot to proactively meet the needs of people living on the streets. This initiative brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers to bridge the gaps between social services and public safety for hard-to-reach clients. In better connecting those experiencing homelessness to services, the team also gives city officials a new understanding of what it means to sustainably work to end homelessness.
Key to our success was our method: human-centered co-creation, which brings together multiple stakeholders—in this case, government agencies, service providers, and community members. Co-creation helps to clarify the problem for everyone involved; at one recent event, for example, these groups came together to co-create a system map of the cycle of homelessness. Just as importantly, it builds shared understanding and connection.
For us, the experience of co-creating solutions to homelessness was bittersweet. The intimate and privileged insights people shared remind us why our work matters. The data collected by the ecosystem of service providers reminds us of the scarcity of resources, as well as the great expense to taxpayers when our systems are inefficient. Co-creation challenges us, as every day it reminds us of our limits and constraints to address the raw and real hopes, dreams, and needs of citizens.
Doing this kind of work in areas that touch people’s everyday lives is messy and humbling, and at times overwhelming. But embracing the nuances and digging deeper into those challenges brings about a level of intimacy and trust that is otherwise difficult to foster between communities and civil servants. It also raises the stakes: there is no backing out once this level of connection is established. With so much work to do to serve the needs of the vulnerable while maintaining public order, and with few resources with which to do it, we feel the pressure for accountability every single day.
Beyond the obvious physical needs expressed by those experiencing homelessness in Austin, many people also expressed a desire for connection. (In fact, we suspect that the desire to connect with communities they’ve built on the streets is one of the reasons why people become homeless again, even after they’ve secured stable housing.)
We all need connection. We have learned through these experiences that building shared understanding through co-creation drives human connection by meeting people where they are, clarifying experiences and facts before taking a stance, and allowing people to be honest and transparent about how their values influence their positions. It supports dignity for all.
We live in an era when it’s possible to live in virtual neighborhoods online but not know the names of one’s physical neighbors. At the subnational level, we have the opportunity to create a democratic, inclusive process that can be experienced in real life. In Austin, we’re rebuilding our local public square as the place where we see each other clearly and forge connections. With that common understanding, we’ll co-create better public policy.
We know that transparency, accountability, and civic participation will grow good government. But how will we know we have succeeded? If “open government” is our goal, who among us can declare “our government is now officially open and we are done?”
Open government is a means, not an end. We need to collectively change the conversation to governANCE, to acknowledge that any complex social effort worth making requires persistence and maintenance, through the hard work of active listening and ongoing dialogue. We like to say that open governance is a lifestyle commitment, not a fad diet that gets abandoned after the tweets get stale.
Our open government action plan includes listening and milestones that close feedback loops between government and civil society. We hope that what we learn can inform the journey of other subnational and national governments alike, and we invite you to add to this conversation, find us at the Open Government Summit in December, and follow Austin’s progress.
People are ready to join in the journey to opening government, they just need to be connected.
Learn more about our Subnational journey at the OGP Global Summit:
In the April primary, it took me four long hours, three ill-informed election workers, two crowded subway rides, and one Board of Elections judge to vote.
It started at my local polling place, where I walked in and discovered that I was not on the voting list. Slightly peeved, but prepared, I asked two different poll workers for a provisional ballot. The first hesitated and said, “We don’t have those;” the second directed me to the Board of Elections (my first subway ride). There, I was met with more confused looks and pointing fingers. After waiting with relentless patience, I ended up sitting before a busy Board of Elections judge, who told me I needed an affidavit ballot—a type of provisional ballot—available back at my local polling place (my second subway ride).
Now, I am pretty into democracy. I am that friend who wears campaign buttons during primary season and who preaches the importance of voting in local elections. I also have the motivation, determination, and flexibility to do what it takes to ensure I can cast my vote. So as I moved through my day of voting hurdles, from one set of contrasting instructions to another, I kept wondering—how many voters would have given up after the first confused poll worker?
As citizens, casting a ballot is one of our foundational rights. We need to start reversing the status quo of laughably low voter turnout—not just in crucial presidential elections, but all of the primaries, midterms, and local elections in between. With so much at stake, each vote is indispensable. We cannot continue to discourage those who show up to be counted with our poorly managed polling places. It is time for us to rethink the voting experience. That starts by understanding why polling-place hiccups like mine are so common.
Following most elections a familiar batch of articles, highlighting long wait times and mismanaged polling places, appear on our newsfeeds. It seems like everyone has experienced a slow-moving or rude poll worker who makes voting more complicated than it has to be. But ineffectively run polling places not only cause headaches; they have huge effects on our democracy.
Research shows that voter confidence is significantly influenced by interactions with poll workers. If you have a terrible experience, you are less likely to vote again. And worse—poll workers have discretion to interpret complicated voting laws at polling places, and ill-informed decisions have consequential effects on our election systems. For example, changes to the provisional voting law in Colorado led poll workers to mistakenly withhold provisional ballots from qualified voters. (Sound familiar?)
But we cannot blame poll workers for these problems, because the system pushes these volunteers to fail. A comprehensive 2014 report from the National Election Administration outlined the challenges that face polling places. For starters, it’s hard to recruit enough. Those that volunteer are expected to work for 16-hour shifts, with little training, and deal with increasingly complex technology—most poll workers only sign up once.
Sincere policy changes at both the national and local level have tried to tackle the woes of our polling places. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a response to the 2000 Florida fiasco, continues to help local authorities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including voting machines, registration processes, and poll worker training.
But many of these well-intentioned steps have one big flaw: they are created without consulting actual poll workers. For example, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 16-point plan for voting reform focuses on enhancing existing incentive structures, with little proof that they are currently working. The plan put forth less-than-inspiring ideas, like raising the poll worker stipend from $200 per day to $240.
Policy recommendations have to be grounded in an understanding of the experiences of government employees on “the front lines” of polling places. If you ask them, I highly doubt that solutions like increasing poll worker stipends by $40 would be on the top of anyone’s list. This type of top-down policy has been proven ineffective time and time again because it is not designed with potential users in mind.
When we see policy falling short, designers often step in with our box of “user-centered” tools. But our bias for cutting-edge or tech-based solutions can lead us astray, too. For example, IDEO recently collaborated with Los Angeles County to “define a voting process that feels familiar to voters” and launched a new ballot machine. It’s an inventive step forward, but IDEO’s definition of the “voting process” starts and ends with voters in a voting booth, not when they walk through that public library or local elementary school, ready to cast their ballot. IDEO has focused only on the technology solution, isolating the controllable digital experiences, and ignoring the people (poll workers) and processes (policy and regulations) those products live within.
So as designers, we too miss the mark. We tend to think of design for social innovation in terms of products and services, and promise the social sector a magic bullet that will neatly solve their problems. But, these shiny objects don’t really address the election system’s messier context to include people, processes, protocols, and policies.
The good news? Design for social innovation is not a static product or “thing.” It’s a process—one that anyone can learn. It’s a way of solving problems through first understanding the needs, contexts, motivations, and incentives not just of “end-users” (in this case, voters), but all users in a system (policymakers, election administrators, and poll workers) before proposing a solution.
To start changing the status quo frustrations for voters at the polls, we have to start by understanding the experiences (including the frustrations) of the poll workers who serve them.
The gap between top-down policy and tech-centric design shows up in many other systems with chronic problems, too. Just as voting interventions often skip over poll workers, education interventions often miss teachers’ voices, and government reform proposals skip over government employees. We need to design human-centered policy—with designers and policymakers not only working together, but grounding their collaborations in the experiences of these front-line workers.
And there are examples of policy solutions that do. In 2014, the Center for Civic Design collaborated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to understand the challenges of how electronic poll books are currently being used in the polling place to inform usability improvements. And in 2013, Reboot teamed up with the voting advocacy organization Turbovote to conduct an institutional ethnography of elections administrations throughout the United States which led to the development of a ballot tracking tool for the 2016 election cycle.
These examples illustrate how design doesn’t just inform an end product, but can build understanding into a policymaking process. Each uses institutional ethnography to ground solutions in empirical evidence based on users’ experiences, and sets government agencies up for success—rather than condemning them for not getting it right the first time.
This kind of design can help more people to feel confident casting a ballot. It’s also good for policymakers and elections boards who want to avoid those headlines every year about polling place dysfunction. If poll workers have the support and structures they need to make the voting experience seamless, it would be just one less excuse not to vote.