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Increasing Accessibility to City Services Through Design-Thinking

When most people hear the word, “design,” they probably think about the process of designing a website or a brochure. Or for some, the term “design-thinking” or “human-centered design” is strictly reserved for describing the work of huge tech firms like Google and Facebook. Well, what if design-thinking could help any city—specifically, your city—make it easier for residents to access essential city services?

That is exactly the mission of Service Design Studio, housed in the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, and launched with support from founding partner Citi Community Development. The Service Design Studio uses design thinking to tackle everything from the way the city supports finding permanent housing for the homeless to providing better access to financial counseling and coaching for residents. The goal is to untangle the layers of bureaucracy and towers of paperwork to provide New Yorkers with the services they need.

One of the first challenges the team addressed was improving placement of the city’s homeless population living on the street into temporary or permanent housing through HOME-STAT, one of the most comprehensive street homeless outreach programs in the nation. The Studio began its work by identifying agency and service providers and then by mapping internal and external stakeholders. Following the mapping, the team interviewed people who use, manage or deliver street homelessness services  and shadowed outreach workers in the field.

The result of this work was a comprehensive report and a detailed journey map clearly describing how people living on the streets are identified and transitioned into permanent housing. The process provided the diverse group of people involved in the service,  from outreach workers to directors, with a common understanding of what problems to tackle, and how the city could improve service delivery. In Fiscal Year 2017, the City placed over 2,000 residents in permanent or transitional housing.

Five principles guide the work of the Service Design Studio. First, government services should be created with residents and the city staff responsible for delivering those services. Leverage prototyping to gather feedback from stakeholders and identify potential risks early. Government services should be equitably distributed and accessible to all residents. Finally, government services should be rigorously measured and evaluated for impact. 

Data plays a central role in Service Design Studio’s work. It is committed to not only measuring the impact of the organization’s work, but using data analysis to identify potential service improvements. Recently, the Studio analyzed nearly 10 years of data on how New Yorkers used ACCESS NYC, a website that assists residents in finding information on everything from heating and utilities assistance to low-cost health insurance. From this data analysis, they learned how few of the users were completing the eligibility screening process. 

Credit: Service Design Studio at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity

The team used this insight to focus on two activities: encouraging residents to complete the screening questions and investigating options outside of user accounts to store information and invite users to come back to their eligibility results.

In my conversation with the Service Design Studio, I walked away with three tips for city leaders interested in incorporating human-centered design in their work:

  • Humble yourself. It’s easy to think you have all the answers, and know what’s best for the city. All you have are hypotheses that need to be tested. You need to let go of your ego, test your assumptions, and learn from actual users.  
  • Think critically about how you communicate about your work. Use plain language, and avoid jargon. This makes your projects more accessible to people unfamiliar with design thinking and makes them willing to try something new.
  • Data matters. Analyze available data to identify which processes or services need to be reviewed and improved. You can also use data to demonstrate the impact this new approach to solving problems.

The Service Design Studio is not offering city employees and residents quick fixes or easy solutions to persistent city problems. They are challenging assumptions and the natural inertia of bureaucracy by putting the focus where it needs to be—on the residents and city staff who need the most help.

If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking and what influences the work of the Service Design Studio, here are some recommended resources:  

  • Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics, produced by the Service Design Studio, which includes methods, templates, case studies, and ongoing reflections from the team. Also download posters, book, and toolkit for use in your work.
  • Stanford University’s reading list
  • This Is Service Design Thinking and This Is Service Design Doing by Mark Stickdorn
  • Harvard Business Review’s September 2015 issue on The Evolution of Design Thinking
  • A Journal of Strategic Insight and Foresight
  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  • WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show (The group loves to listen to the Ask the Mayor segment to learn more about how policy impacts their work.)
  • Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary by Dan Hill
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert

Tell us what you think. Are you using any of these techniques in your government? If so, what challenges are you addressing with these techniques? What are some of the lessons you have learned?


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