Shaking Up Sleepy Bureaucratic Processes

It's called 'service design.' The idea is to combine behavioral science with a participatory approach to making public services work better.
December 6, 2017
Alarm clock ringing on a green background.
(Shutterstock)
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Many veteran public managers have had the experience of seeing their "seat of the pants" strategies for improving government operations and services transformed by public-administration academics into a rigorous discipline deemed worthy of application and study. Sometimes I laugh out loud: "Is that what they call it?"

But concepts from everyday life have their place in thinking about how government should work. In a column in this space a year ago, I suggested that the field of hydraulics -- plumbing, that is -- had much to offer public managers seeking to improve the efficiency of multi-stage programs that require smooth transitions between stages. I've also written here about programs where "last mile" obstacles frustrated practitioners and citizens alike.

Recently, a new initiative in Philadelphia caught my eye, not because it has a new label -- "service design" -- but because it brings the tools of behavioral science to the practice of organizing service delivery in new ways.

Inspired by the successes of New York City's Civic Service Design initiative, Philadelphia sought and was awarded a $338,000 Knight Foundation City Challenge grant this summer to create the PHL Participatory Design Lab. It was one of the biggest grants awarded this year in the Knight Cities Challenge. Just now ramping up, the Philadelphia lab aims to blend behavioral economics with participatory service design to shake up sleepy bureaucratic processes that often pay little attention to the experiences of citizens using those services.

How do you translate these two concepts? Behavioral economics is the field that, among other things, established conclusively that using opt-out rather than opt-in choices wildly improved participation in organ-donor and employee-savings programs. In the Philadelphia context, behavioral scientists from Penn and Temple universities will design and evaluate low-cost interventions that are intended to remove barriers and effectively nudge positive behaviors. (Example: Will providing lids on recycling bins reduce litter? Test results: No, household recyclables are often awkward shapes that preclude use of lids.) Participatory service design engages residents and city staff in step-by-step examination of delivery of services, starting with the outcome desired and working backward to improve the citizen experience and maximize both the efficiency of the program and its results.

Philadelphia's chief service designer, Liana Dragoman, learned first-hand what it was like to be a service recipient when she struggled to recover after she was badly burned in a devastating house fire. Programs ostensibly dedicated to her return to normal life instead often were hurdles to be overcome. But "what if the steps, prompts and forms that government provided were sensitive to my trauma, or at a baseline, actually understandable?", she wondered in a recent blog post. "What if services were easy to initiate, use, keep track of and renew, so I could access money to purchase food, pay my bills and enroll in Medicaid with minimal complication?"

Questions like those inform Philadelphia's service design initiative, whose origins date from when Mayor Jim Kenney took office in 2016. He created the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation with the intent of helping departments make government services more efficient, transparent and accessible to the public. Partnering with the Mayor's Office of Policy, Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs, a small unit headed by Dragoman soon marshalled an innovation approach, essential executive support, the Knight grant and a team of city staff who believed that co-designed processes could break the resistance to change that so often stifles improvement of public services.

First up for the PHL Lab and the behavioral scientists: Philadelphia's Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement program, which helps families stay in their homes despite delinquencies by fulfilling commitments to make payments negotiated as alternatives to foreclosure. The program can be a life-changer for households, but it requires sophisticated design sensitive to the expectations and challenges facing families to guide them to success.

Other departments are watching and participating in training, preparing to jump-start similar service design processes that involve residents, bureaucrats and behavioral scientists in identifying small-scale adjustments with potentially big payoffs.

Oh, and the academic labels I mentioned earlier? Anjali Chainani, head of Philadelphia's Office of Policy, offers one reason this effort might have sustained traction. "We call it 'services design,' but the city staff calls it 'common sense.'"