5 qualities designers need to succeed in the public sector

By Stephanie Wade, Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop for some of Silicon Valley’s top designers at the annual San Francisco Design Week festival. The goal of the session, called Designing for Government, was to introduce private-sector designers to the exciting opportunities to practice their craft inside city halls.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the 50 designers who packed the room — all of whom raised their hand when asked if they were interested in working in the public sector — it was good timing.

Designers have established their pedigree among the tech and software firms that dominate the Bay Area’s economy — nobody in the private sector questions that designers and their methods lead to better products and higher profits. Yet increasingly, many designers, including the younger ones coming up through the ranks, are craving more meaning in their work than private-sector opportunities can provide. In addition to building new commercial products and experiences, they also want to apply their talents to help end homelessness, resolve inequality, and find other ways to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

At the same time, city leaders are now beginning to see designers as a key ingredient for fostering a culture of innovation at city hall. The orientation designers have toward “human-centered” problem solving leads them to co-create solutions with residents, reducing the risk that new programs will fail because they are built with, not for, the people who use them. Designers also aim to tackle the root causes of problems, rather than the symptoms. Government needs designers. That’s why most of the i-teams working in cities today — groups of in-house consultants that Bloomberg Philanthropies is funding to solve public problems differently — include designers as part of the team.

[Read: Meet the new force shaking up city halls: designers]

But as designers look at making the jump to city government, they need to go in with their eyes wide open. While the public sector offers opportunities to make mission-driven impact, things also work very differently than in the private sector.

In the Design Week workshop, private-sector designers worked in teams, using real data from one of our i-teams to simulate a city-level problem-solving experience. In addition, several public-sector innovation and design leaders were on hand to offer a view of what the challenges and opportunities look like on the inside. They include Amanda Daflos, Director of the i-team in Los Angeles; Kerry O’Connor, Director of the i-team in Austin, Texas; Kweilin Waller, Deputy Chief of Staff in Phoenix; and Ryann Hoffman, a design consultant who is working with three cities that are prototyping new ideas through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.

Throughout the exercise, teams noted differences in how they would tackle problems in the public sector. And we discussed the personal qualities that private-sector designers need in order to make a successful jump into government. Here are five of them:

Restlessness. Designers believe big change is possible — and as a result, they have the ability to inspire big changes in organizations. But government is often built to prevent big change. Designers new to the public sector will often hear the words “no” and “that is how it is always done.” To succeed, designers need to lead with curiosity about why the challenges they are working to solve exist, both inside and outside city hall. Designers are naturally good at poking at assumptions. So they’re well positioned to uncover constraints that may be more perceived than real, and identify opportunities to improve how government works.

Patience. Even as designers need to be restless in energizing and inspiring the government to try new ways of delivering services to their residents, they also need to be patient about the pace of change. Things move slower in the public sector. An established bureaucracy creates hurdles to forward motion.

[Get the latest innovation news from Bloomberg Cities! Subscribe to SPARK.]

Designers must engage with that bureaucracy. They need to try to understand the people who are tasked with upholding long-held processes and bring them into the work of uncovering both perceived and real barriers. Then, designers need to get these people’s support in finding solutions they can all get excited about. This is critical to being successful in changing local government, but it takes time.

Willingness to teach. Designers in government need to be good teachers. That’s, in part, because their mindset is so new to the public sector. It’s also because, in order for their approach to be successful, it needs to spread and be adopted widely across agencies. This means designers need to not only be excited to explain their process and the value it brings: They need to be advocates.

That doesn’t mean being a purist. Sometimes, designers need to simplify elements of their approach to make it accessible, or even let go of concepts that are not essential to broader success. For example, many i-teams hold regular office hours or brown-bag lunch sessions to teach colleagues throughout city hall the basics of the design approach and conduct follow-up sessions to help departments apply design practices to their own small internal projects. While the process may not be as comprehensive or rigorous as a designer would normally advocate for, the teams recognize that progress is more important than perfection.

Rigor. Public-sector problems tend to be more complex than those designers face in the private sector. Understanding the root causes of, say, homelessness requires more complex research than designing a new refrigerator. Doing this well means engaging a lot of stakeholders, across many demographics and sectors, and then comprehensively understanding how that diverse data fits together to uncover challenges and opportunities.

This can be a new way of working for designers accustomed to corporate work. For example, in our Design Week workshop, we asked participants to identify who the stakeholders would be on a project aimed at assisting residents as they come out of incarceration. While all the groups understood the need to engage those justice-involved residents, employers, education institutions, nonprofits, and other support networks, none thought to include the various city departments involved in justice and reentry programs.

Balance. Designers need to go into government balancing bold ambitions with a pragmatic sense of how to fix small problems quickly.

Look at our what our Austin i-team is doing as they work on solutions to reduce homelessness. One idea they are exploring would use blockchain technology to help the homeless access services even if they lose their identification. It’s a major problem in cities everywhere. If Austin can solve it, they’ll improve lives and possibly spread a new idea around the world.

At the same time, Austin is looking at small, practical fixes as well. For example, the i-team is working in partnership with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department to map out the location of homelessness resources. It’s a simple step to improve community awareness of existing services, and can be the basis for future conversations locally about how to tackle the homelessness problem.

[Read: Prototyping city solutions and launching a revolution]

Governments around the world are being asked to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, and that means we need all kinds of talented individuals to dive in and help solve them. It is important to bring more designers into government as a part of that effort. That is why the San Francisco Design Week event was so exciting. It made visible the incredible enthusiasm and hunger there is for designers to do this work. We had countless participants leave the session looking for opportunities to move into government for their next career move.

If you are a designer interested in following that path as well, start by volunteering with your city. Do they have an innovation team or office already? Donate your time and skills to help them. Want a full-time job? Follow them or me (@StephAWade) on Twitter to keep an eye out for job opportunities. Want to meet more people like you? Start a meetup in your city focused on design in government. Get creative! Make it happen!

(Image: Magic Pictures/Shutterstock)

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store