Something special happened at the Code for America office this past weekend. Eighty five local government officials, designers, and Code for America Fellows past and present gathered for a Saturday of informal discussion and work sessions about design in government. While I’m still sorting through the detailed notes and takeaways, I wanted to share some of the ideas with our wider community right away. And one of the most common questions I received as host was “how can we do this in our city?” — I’ll explain below.
First, why civic design? Very few local governments employ staff with the title of designer, and yet every single point where citizens interact with government, online or offline, is designed by someone. The difference between well designed and poorly designed is a huge driver of perception, which can influence engagement and participation. So when our kickoff speaker, Jess McMullin, acknowledged how many government staff are in fact doing design every day, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Jess said “this is a little bit like the moment when Harry Potter gets the letter explaining his wizard powers — welcome to Hogwarts, everyone!” Jess went on to talk about using design to frame difficult problems and designing entire services rather than single interfaces. Then CfA’s own Frances Berriman took the stage (well, the stairway, this was a very informal event) — Frances was one of the early designers on Gov.UK, and she said that she is always asked whether it’s possible to do anything so successful in another location or context. She said the answer is absolutely YES — if you want to.
With those two inspirations to get us started, the camp got down to business. Our content committee, Andrea Moed and Marc Hebert, had pre-seeded the program with planned skillshares and hack projects. For the morning, that meant Molly McLeod and Ainsley Wagoner giving a packed two-hour session on effective flyer design, and a large group over by the windows working on a design problem brought by Krista Canellakis of HireSF. A full track of 15-minute case studies filled in quickly
(we wanted to make sure that as many participants as possible could share their stories, and that the invitation to do so was unintimidating and easy to say yes to). The case studies ranged over all areas of civic design from print materials for the San Francisco Public Library (offered by Ellen Reilly) to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s pre-paid credit card regulations (offered by Mollie Bates) to the uses of the GE Design System in government (offered by Eric from GE).
There were traditional unconference-style discussion sessions too, facilitated by people who volunteered on the spot to lead conversations on subjects they were passionate about. Zoey Kroll from San Francisco Department of the Environment led a rousing session on designing for behavior change; Jess teamed up with Gord Ross to lead a deeper dive on service design. And we tried a more unusual idea too: one breakout room’s sign said “the designer is in” or “the govie is in” and participants were invited to sign up to give office hours and answer questions.
Lunch came and went with friendly, lively conversation and then it was time to take on a new hack project, this time working on improving the usability of government forms. Three more skillshares were offered in the afternoon — Ben Peterson on communicating meaningful data, Tiffany Chu on sketching the user experience, and Andrea Moed on turning sketches into prototypes. Meanwhile, the discussion track got into citizen participation and San Francisco housing data and the case studies kept rolling along.
It seemed like a lot of tracks when we were planning. And a smaller Civic Design Camp might make do with less, but I think several of our deviations from traditional unconference format were important. This explicit collaboration between people designing inside and outside of government, who may or may not call themselves designers, is new. It’s a time for community building, for drawing out everyone’s stories and learning from all corners of the room. We wanted lots of opportunities to share or lead, but we also wanted to emulate our friends in the coding world and offer participants something tangible to do together. The 15-minute case studies and the hack projects and skillshares happening alongside the discussion track made this real.
Even more important to the success of the day, we had current government employees Jake Levitas and Jason Lally, as well as industry designers on our organizing committee. So we were able to attract a balanced group of attendees, about 60 percent government staff, 40 percent industry.
By 5:00 p.m., when we wrapped up by sharing what we had learned and headed for a nearby bar, the new connections in the room were uncountable. We agreed to keep the momentum going, and to continue developing a practice of civic design in concert with the larger civic tech movement. I’m so grateful to everyone who came to the very first Civic Design Camp. I’ll have more detailed notes to share as we gather all the case studies and discussion readouts; in the meantime, whether your title is “designer” or not, I invite you to join us.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.</p>