Carrying a Legacy, Leading the Field: Jazmyn Latimer

A conversation with Code for America’s Service Design Director
Jazmyn Latimer

Welcome to our new “Leading the Field” series, where we’ll be interviewing leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’ll be lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. To kick things off, we sat down (virtually!) with Code for America’s own Jazmyn Latimer, who oversees our entire service design practice.

Tell us about the path that led you to your current work leading service design at Code for America.

My journey to leading service design at Code for America started in undergraduate school, where I studied applied behavior change and began working as a behavioral therapist for children with autism and adults living with dementia. I spent three years practicing how to empathize with people very different from myself, identify and measure the root causes of behavior, and create an environment that reinforces positive change.

The work I did as a behavioral therapist made it really easy for me to pick up design. After working as a UX designer and user researcher for a few years, I joined Code for America’s 2015 Fellowship program as a design Fellow working with the City of Vallejo on using design and technology to repair police and community trust. While we certainly didn’t solve the problem, we did spend the year doing design and research on the ground with communities in Vallejo. We shadowed the police and sat in 911 call centers, we visited community members in their homes, ran co-design workshops at the local farmer’s markets, and facilitated hard conversations with city government leaders. At the end of my Fellowship, I knew I wanted to stay at Code for America to continue to use my design and research skills to advocate for criminal justice reform.

In 2016, I co-founded Clear My Record—a project that automates the process of clearing old convictions from criminal records at scale, removing the need to apply manually. After three years of researching the criminal legal space, iterating on the designs for Clear My Record, building partnerships around the state, and inspiring others to see that automatic record clearance at scale was necessary and possible, I switched my focus to redesigning safety net services. In 2019 I began working on the Integrated Benefits Initiative as a design manager leading the service design team working on MNbenefits.org, the state of Minnesota’s combined application for food, cash, emergency, and healthcare benefits. Before transitioning to my current role, I worked on the design and implementation of Pandemic EBT in California and Minnesota, which helped over 2 million students buy food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as service design director, I support our research and design practices at Code for America across all of our programs and products. I spend my time coaching others, bringing new people into the org, and continuing to push our vision for dramatically transforming the way government services are delivered to people who need them most.

How has the service design community changed since you entered the field? What would you like to see more of? In what ways have you been able to change it for those who come next?

I think the design community is a lot more self-critical now after the reckoning that came in 2020 related to racial justice, equity, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the pandemic. People now see that systems are inequitable and burdensome by design, and they’re grappling with our role in fixing that. I notice the design and research community thinking beyond just usability and accessibility to designing more intentionally with inclusion, white supremacy, and anti-racism in mind. I see the community trying to lift up and include marginalized voices. And I see the design community investigating the origins of design thinking, lean, and agile to define how we can practice more radical, inclusive, community-led, and equity-centered design.

Even so, I want to see more people of color working in this space with us as leaders. I want to work with more people who have lived experience using government services. I want to hire and collaborate with more Black, Indigenous, and Latinx designers. Not only have they been doing this work for a long time—far before the design thinking movement began—but they have a unique perspective to bring to this space because they’re from the communities that we’re designing for. I just want to see many many more of us in the room.

I hope the way that I change the space for those who come next is by inspiring them to see that my path is possible—that you can use the tools of design and technology to radically change policy and government. I hope people from all backgrounds and experiences feel compelled to join me. Together, we can push the boundaries of existing systems and inspire others to rethink what’s possible by being ambitious and courageous in pursuit of our vision for change. I hope I’ve inspired others to use their skills to do the same.

What advice would you give to others looking to get into a service design career?

If you want to get into a service design career, you should prepare yourself to be a multidisciplinary designer who can jump confidently around different parts of the design process. You have to be prepared to zoom into specific steps in a service, and back out to the system surrounding that service. You should be ready to do research, discovery, prototyping, evaluation, visioning, and strategy. You have to be ready to be a strong advocate and inspire others to believe in the world you think is possible.

I came into this field in what some might call a nontraditional path. I didn’t go to school for service design, and I didn’t get hired initially as a “service designer.” I started working on services through product, user experience design, and design research—so remember that you don’t have to design your career in a linear way. Work your way up to service design if you need to. While you might not land a job with the title of service designer right at the start, you could start as a UX designer working on a product that is part of a larger service. This means you’ll naturally have to learn how to apply service design thinking and methodologies to the problem space you’re working in. The same goes for research. Entering the service design field as a researcher can be a good entry point to service design because the first step of service design is always research.

So if you just think of all of the activities that service design encapsulates rather than chasing the title “service designer” I think you might find a faster path to a career working on improving services. For example, on the service design team at Code for America, there are only two people (so far!) who have the words “service design” in their official title, but our collective work is to transform government services and improve outcomes for people in need.

Just go where the work is interesting to you. Find work that feels close enough to what you’re looking for and see how it evolves from there. Focus your energy on the change you want to create in the world, and let the rest follow.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?

Bringing your full self to work everyday when your work is to deeply understand the root causes of systemic issues, inspire others to rethink what’s possible, and advocate for radical change can be hard. I’m constantly trying to juggle my anger and frustration at the state of the world with my vision and hope for change. As a designer working in government, you’re the one people look to for inspiration and hope for the future. So you have to find a way to show up everyday ready to listen, absorb, feel, and question the status quo. You have to show up brave enough to follow your nose, ask hard questions, advocate for what you believe, and face hard truths. And then in the face of those hard truths you have to be able to find your curiosity, openness, optimism, and creativity.

It requires caring for yourself outside of work and really investigating your assumptions. You’re constantly managing your energy. Rest when you are tired, honor your experience, and lean on the community of advocates who are pushing for change with you. You have to find a way to hope, dream, and persevere. It can be challenging, but it’s worth it.

What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?

It means designing government services that serve everyone equitably and with respect, so everyone has equal opportunity to get the help they need when they need it. This often looks like designing services that are simple, accessible, inclusive, and easy to use without introducing more trauma or stress. But I think it should go even further than that.

Truly equitable government services would remove all barriers to getting the help you need.

Currently, acquiring safety net benefits or legal services requires time, effort, resources, and support that marginalized people don’t always have. And we know people reach out to government for help in times of crisis and immense need. So government services that are complicated, confusing, include many barriers to access and heavy administrative burdens are inherently inequitable. Even if you design the most usable, inclusive, accessible application form for that service, if the process is so burdensome that only those with time, privilege, and resources can get through it, it’s not equitable.

For example, in the criminal legal system, getting through the process of clearing your record can be so complicated that to be successful people hire legal advocates to navigate the process on their behalf. While improving the petition based process so that it’s accessible, inclusive and easy to navigate does help, automating the record clearance process altogether so that people don’t have to apply or do any work at all is a more radical step towards truly equitable government.

So to me, designing truly equitable government means moving closer to proactive, invisible, or automatic service delivery. It means not just improving services incrementally but shifting the burden back to government, resulting in truly equitable outcomes at scale.