Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.
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.
On June 13th, Emily Herrick and Marielle Velander will lead a workshop for the NYC Sustained Global Impact Community of Practice on applying design thinking to policy and service design through design research. Emily and Marielle will share examples from Reboot’s projects and lead exercises designed to help participants apply methods and tools of design research to their own work.
Chioma Agwuegbo was interviewed today on Radio Nigeria on the relationship between inclusive governance and violent extremism. The interview took place on the Neem Capsule Radio Show, a weekly live program hosted by the Neem Foundation in collaboration with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria and broadcast to an audience of 30 million Nigerians. Insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria thrives “when people do not feel they are a part of the governance structure,” said Agwuegbo. “The people need to be a part of every solution.”
Meet Reboot West Africa’s newest Operations Intern Abubakar Sadiq Idris! A Mathematics graduate of Bayero University, an IT enthusiast, and a mathematics tutor for secondary school children, Sadiq’s lifelong goal is to increase literacy and access to education in his community. He looks forward to working with Reboot’s diverse team and adding to his knowledge of international approaches to development.
On May 24th, Reboot will present new open data research in collaboration with the NYC Open Data team at Civic Hall. Reboot’s research into current and potential users of open data supports the NYC Open Data team’s efforts to empower communities to use data for problem solving. This event is free and open to the public; register here.
Isabel joins the Reboot team as our new Partnerships Intern. She brings a wide variety of economics, communications, and technology experience, including strategy work at a “smart cities” startup, Soofa. Across these industries, Isabel has focused on reaching a wider audience through accessible communications and design. She is excited to learn more about service design and research at Reboot, and hopes to gain a stronger understanding of how to create change in complex systems.
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.
As a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and a leader of the Abuja regional hub, Chioma Agwuegbo was selected to attend the first ever Solutions Summit. Hosted by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the Summit immediately precedes this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa, in Durban, South Africa. May 1st through 5th, Chioma will join other rising leaders to explore, showcase, and scale models for social impact. #solsum17 #WEFAfrica2017
The LA Review of Books published an essay about the evolving meaning of the word “citizen” by Reboot’s Editor Kate Petty. The piece discusses the word choice dilemmas writers face as once-powerful words lose their meanings through overuse, co-option, or shifting political currents. Kate’s contribution was also named among the month’s “best” on the LARB website.
On May 1, Laura Freschi will lead a seminar on implementing public sector innovation to alumni of the mid-career Master of Public Management program at the University of Potsdam, Germany. As part of a week-long workshop focused on the exchange of design-based, participatory, and co-creative approaches to policy-making and public service delivery, Laura will share lessons from Reboot’s work in Mexico and Nigeria.
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.
On April 24th and 25th, Emily Herrick will join global thought leaders in civic technology and digital democracy at TICTec, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, in Florence Italy. On April 25th, she will speak about how governments can harness existing communication technologies to close citizen feedback loops. Follow her at @immabeemilyy and the conference conversation at #TICTeC.
From April 21st to 22nd, Lauren Gardner will advise education entrepreneurs at Teach for America’s (TFA) Entrepreneurs United conference in Houston, TX. The convening for TFA members and alumni will allow participants to build skills and connections for developing and growing their ventures. On Friday, Lauren will join a panel for early stage entrepreneurs on how they can understand their problem and test their idea. Her Saturday workshop—“Putting a Face to Your Idea”—will demonstrate how user personas can help participants conceptualize their idea, engage partners, and tell their story. Register to attend here.
On April 18 at 9am ET, Panthea Lee will take part in a webinar hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on data literacy. She will join colleagues from the Web Foundation and Fabriders in sharing lessons and ideas to support IFRC in its aim to be a data-driven organization making evidence-based decisions. Join the webinar and read more about the data at the IFRC.
We are pleased to welcome Chioma Agwuegbo to the Reboot team as our new West Africa-based Program Manager. Chioma brings a wealth of communications and strategic advisory expertise, including her work producing the award-winning radio drama “Story Story” with the BBC World Service Trust and her experience advising business and government leaders on social media engagement strategies. At Reboot, she looks forward to leading projects that bring together media, civil society, communities, and government to advance social justice.
Reboot won the Open Government Partnership’s #OpenGovGram photo contest with a shot of a participatory budget meeting in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya. Panthea Lee snapped the winning picture while working with the county to bring citizen voices into government decisions. Read more about Reboot’s work in Kenya here.
On March 31st, Marielle Velander and Emily Herrick will share their experiences supporting open government initiatives in Jalisco, Mexico, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya, and Austin, Texas with students at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School for Public Service. During an interactive session, Emily and Marielle will use these case studies to illustrate Reboot’s approach to co-creation and change management. The event is open to all NYU students and is hosted by NYU International Public Service Association and NYU Bridge: Students for Social Innovation from 5:30 to 7:00 pm in the Leslie eLab, 16 Washington Place, NYC.
This week, Emily Herrick will participate in the Design for Good webcast series hosted by the Professional Association for Design (AIGA). Under the theme of citizen-driven policymaking, Emily will share her experience applying human-centered design and communications strategies to support criminal justice reform in the US and international open government initiatives. She and conversation partners, Tomas Ives, from the Government of Chile, and Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director of the Public Policy Lab, will examine how design skills can enhance civic participation and transparency among underserved communities. Join the live webcast at 12:00 pm EST on Friday, March 17th.
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.