“What We Do Is Try To Focus On The Goal And The End User”: MindLab and Redesigning Government Services

One afternoon about six years ago, I sat with my colleagues at the U.S. Department of Labor in a room that fulfilled all appropriate stereotypes of government buildings — windowless, drab carpeting, harsh fluorescent lights, dark faux-wood paneling. The meeting began with annoyance and agitation, complaints about this new policy and that old requirement. And then, my boss quieted the crowd to play a recording of a teenager, who had participated in a program for school dropouts administered by our office. His voice was tentative, but hopeful. He was grateful for the second chance and thoughtful about how the program could better reach youth like him. The mood in the room shifted, as my colleagues and I took on the perspective of a youth who’d had a difficult time in life. A meeting that began by focusing on what we couldn’t do became a collaborative discussion about what we could do better.

That meeting has stayed with me as a real-life example of how important it is for government officials to maintain a connection to the citizens touched by their services and actions — or the “end users” as they are often referred to in our tech-centric world. To that end, several countries — including the U.S. — have established innovation labs to help embed a more human-centered and collaborative approach into program design and problem solving. It’s a task that requires rethinking the role of public agencies in tackling social challenges.

“The public sector becomes more like a facilitator in figuring out how to bring the stakeholders together, rather than just a provider of services,” said Runa Sabroe, a project manager at MindLab.

Photo courtesy of MindLab

MindLab, a government innovation unit in Denmark, approaches each problem by working across sectors and maintaining a focus on the end users of services. One project targeted at improving the management of industrial injury cases and helping workers return to work brought together injured workers, public officials, unions, and businesses.

“This is a difficult problem that the public sector can’t solve on its own,” said Sabroe.

MindLab interviewed injured workers about their experiences and then used the insights from those conversations to map out the service path from a citizen’s perspective. The MindLab team also helped clarify where the interests of the many stakeholders could conflict and result in a loss of focus on what should be a common goal: helping as many injured workers as possible return to productive employment. According to Sabroe, the process helped the public sector rethink how it delivered services — in collaboration with its partners — and led to the implementation of a new team-focused approach to serving injured workers.

Even with its successes, MindLab has learned that bringing a human-centered approach to problem solving in the public sector is an incremental process.  Sabroe believes that by actively engaging agency staff in MindLab’s work, the innovation unit is slowly helping to bring about the necessary change in mindset.

“We take [the public officials] along as we do our work and they become like ambassadors,” said Sabroe.

Since MindLab is supported by the government, it can work with agencies over a long period of time to solve problems. Sabroe views this as a major advantage.

“We aren’t like consultants who you hire and just work for a short time,” Sabroe said.

MindLab also tries to choose projects where the stakeholders, including the public agencies, are willing and ready to engage in a new kind of problem solving process. Each year, it engages in a strategic planning process with its board members — the secretaries for business and growth, education and employment as well as the chief executive for the Odense municipality — to decide where it will focus its efforts. Sabroe believes that this planning process helps to ensure that the findings from work on the ground get translated up to the ministries at the federal level.

Nonetheless, solving problems that involve multiple layers of government, different funding streams and cross-sector stakeholders can be daunting. Because of political constraints or concerns about the impact of a service change (particularly any increase in costs), public officials may hesitate to fully engage in the MindLab process.

MindLab doesn’t yet have an answer when it comes to cutting through bureaucracy, “but what we try to do is to focus on the goal and the end user,” said Sabroe.

U.S. federal agencies have long adopted the language of business, partly as an effort to emphasize the end-user for public services. Many programs have “customer satisfaction” metrics. The workforce investment system is a “dual-client” model referring to the jobseekers and employers who interact with the system. And as my meeting from several years ago demonstrates, public officials have tried in the past to incorporate the perspective of end users (that is, citizens) into efforts to improve programs.

The work of MindLab and other innovation units — like the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab — is valuable because it helps to move the focus on citizens beyond rhetoric and gives agencies the tools to gather and incorporate citizen feedback in a methodical and systematic way. By giving public officials the right tools and helping them rethink their role, human-centered design could help to transform how government works, making it more adaptive to the needs of citizens and consequently more effective.

But change isn’t going to happen overnight. Like any new initiative, innovation labs need time and support to make a real difference in how the public sector operates.

Photo courtesy of MindLab

Mapping Informal Transit Networks: “Imagine Not Knowing Where Any Bus in Your City Goes.”


When traveling in the developing world, two things fascinate me: the informal transit networks that form the backbone of travel and commerce in many areas and the prevalence of cell phones. Last year, on an extended trip through Southeast Asia, my husband and I relied on word-of-mouth connections, sometimes facilitated by a quick call, to get from place to place. On one trip from Sihanoukville to Kep in Cambodia, we first took a tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw) from an outlying beach to the center of town. The driver stopped at an unmarked stand, spoke with another man for a bit, and then said, “You can go now for $20 or wait for more people to come and it will be cheaper.” We’d spent a lot of time on hot, slow buses, so we hopped in the car. Along the way our driver stopped twice, once to retrieve what looked like a container of fish from a roadside stand and another time to take a piss.

As a traveler who wasn’t in rush, I didn’t mind our slow progress and appreciated how asking about transportation options opened the door to conversations that helped us learn more about the people and the communities where we visited. It’s a stark contrast to travel in Washington, D.C. or my new home Berlin, where public transit systems are generally automated and effective ways to get around. During my daily commute in D.C., I rarely spoke to anyone because thanks to an iPhone app, updated maps, and timetables, I knew when the bus would come and where it would take me.

Of course, not knowing where transit routes go is much less fascinating when you need to rely on them everyday. As you can read in this report focusing on three Indonesian cities, informal transportation networks can provide crucial support to city residents and reach communities and geographic areas that public transportation (where it does exist) do not. However, the beneficial aspects of these networks may be overshadowed by the problems created by a lack of information and regulation, including traffic congestion, accidents and lost time for passengers. The good news is that in several cities, including Nairobi, Mexico City, and Dhaka, efforts are underway to take advantage of the prevalence of cell phones as a way to collect and then disseminate data on informal transportation networks. Tomorrow representatives from several projects are meeting in Washington, D.C. at a workshop hosted by the World Bank, MIT and Columbia University.

In Nairobi, Digital Matatus, an initiative led by a team at MIT, University of Nairobi, Columbia University, and the consulting firm Groupshot, is using spatial data collected through a cell phone application to map the routes of matatus, the mini-buses that serve as the defacto city bus system. Today information on where the matatus run and whether there are transit disruptions is limited. Sarah Williams, the project director at MIT, says that Nairobi residents typically know where the routes go in their local community, but in travel beyond their neighborhood often rely on word-of-mouth connections. With data it collected through a cell phone application in the common General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format, the Digital Matatus team has just finished a draft paper map of the matatu network. Williams hopes that when finalized, the matatu map will make it easier for citizens to navigate their city— and become the first informal transit network included in Google Maps.

“Imagine not knowing where any bus in your city goes,” Williams said. “Citizens are very excited to get this data.”

Publishing the data, of course, has implications not just for citizens, but also for the local government and the large and small matatu companies that now largely self-regulate.  According to Williams, the local agencies and at least some matatu collectives are supportive of the effort, but their engagement has been limited.

“I think they’ll get more engaged once the data is out there, and they have an idea of what it means for them,” said Williams.

In particular, the data could be very helpful for traffic planning purposes. Today, any attempt to model Nairobi’s terrible traffic doesn’t include the matatus— a major source of congestion since they stop wherever they want and often fail to obey traffic laws.

Moving forward, Digital Matatus will face a challenge familiar to many social innovators: ensuring that they can sustain and improve their work. Right now, the initiative can only produce a map that reflects a static point-in-time representation of the matatu network. The data like this can become out-of-date very quickly, particularly for a transportation system that changes dynamically, even on a day-to-day basis. In the future, the group hopes to develop a new application that will allow citizens to report changes and disruptions in real-time. The team is also working on finding a Nairobi-based organization to take ownership of the effort long-term.

“We want somebody from Nairobi to take on the data and maintain it,” said Williams. “This should be local knowledge.”

Digital Matatus is a great example of how technological advances (in this case, the prevalence of cell phones) can be harnessed to provide citizens with information that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them— hopefully giving them more control over their lives and schedules. It will be interesting to see how local governments and the operators of informal transportation, both in Nairobi and elsewhere, adapt to the availability of this data as it gets into the hands of citizens. Will city agencies use it to help tame traffic congestion or bring more formal regulation to these systems? Will the operators of informal transportation change their services and routes as better-informed citizens demand it?

There’s still much work to be done, but perhaps next time I’m in Cambodia, I’ll use my phone to map my route from Sihanoukville to Kep.

Why We Should Think About Innovation as a Process: An Interview With Christian Seelos, Visiting Scholar at Stanford University

The social sector is overflowing with big, creative ideas these days, and thank goodness! Poverty, growing inequality, high youth unemployment, lack of access to clean water and healthy food— to solve these and other seemingly intractable problems throughout the world, we need to rethink traditional models and service systems. However, as anyone who has tried to turn an idea into an actual product or service knows, dreaming up “the next big thing” is often the easy part. Next comes the difficult work of implementation and ongoing efforts — often over a long period of time— to continually improve and adapt an organization’s model.

Unfortunately, much of the discourse in the social sector today focuses on innovation as an easy answer and risks undervaluing the benefits that come from sustaining and scaling an organization’s existing work. Christian Seelos, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Johanna Mair, a professor of management, organization and leadership at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the Hewlett Foundation visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, argue that the social sector needs to move away from viewing innovation as an ideology and instead think about innovation an organizational process. They put forward their case in “Innovation is Not the Holy Grail,” a August 2012 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and later explored the balance between innovation and scaling here.

In the interview below, you can listen to my conversation with Seelos about their work and specifically, the experience of Aravind Eye Care Hospital in India. Aravind has grown from an 11-bed hospital in Madurai in 1976 to become the world’s largest provider of eye care. It focuses on one chief intervention that addresses a major cause of preventable blindness: cataract surgery. Through dedicated focus on incremental improvements, Aravind has achieved a level of productivity that allows it to remain profitable, even as it provides many of its surgeries free of charge to India’s poorest citizens. It’s a great illustration of why we shouldn’t underestimate the value of the continual, small improvements to a model that eventually lead to better outcomes for individuals and communities.

This model of “incremental innovation” is as relevant in the developed as the developing world. In future posts, I will explore U.S. organizations that take a similar approach.

Listen below or download the interview.

Post-Shutdown Reflection: Creating Better Feedback Loops between Government and Citizens

The U.S. government is up and operating again after a 16-day shutdown. Watching your country— or really, a few extreme members of Congress— flirt with economic catastrophe from abroad is not a pleasant experience. I’d prefer not to repeat it. What many people don’t realize is that the shutdown put a temporary halt to lots of innovative and interesting work that often flies under the radar, but has the potential to help build a more effective, adaptable and responsive government. (Case in point: the U.S. Department of Labor’s new Pay for Success grants, announced shortly before most of the agency’s workers were furloughed.)

This seems like an appropriate time to start a blog focused on bringing better design to the public and social sectors. Given the state of affairs in Washington, D.C. over the past few weeks—where the loud voices of a few overwhelmed the more reasonable voices of many—I think it’s appropriate to begin with the topic of the federal government and better citizen feedback.

We all know that we’re living in a new world where social media and other technologies allow for rapid feedback – getting immediate reactions to our every thought on facebook, Twitter and Tumblr is changing how we interact with the world and our expectations about how public and private sector institutions should engage with us.  Governments across the world are responding to these changing attitudes through a range of initiatives designed to allow citizens to build popular support for issues that they care about. At We the People, citizens have offered petitions on issues as diverse as gay marriage, immigration, and Death Stars.  In Germany, citizens can ask questions of Chancellor Merkel and receive responses on a platform at DirektzurKanzlerin (Direct to the Chancellor). Providing information to the public and responding to questions and concerns is a critical function of a responsive and open government, but to build a more effective and adaptive public sector, federal agencies need to go a step further – they need to figure out how to better incorporate rapid and continual citizen feedback into the design and implementation of programs and strategies.

Why should governments incorporate regular citizen feedback into the design and implementation of programs? Research suggests that the collective intelligence of the crowd (e.g., the service providers designing a program, the researchers evaluating it, and the adults and youth receiving services) is smarter than a small group of experts (even the smartest experts). Harnessing this collective knowledge—particularly in the context of an initial testing (or prototyping) phase— could lead to better early program design. Many of the most effective social programs then continue to engage with stakeholders throughout implementation, combining that feedback with ongoing analysis of outcomes to refine their models. We often think of innovation in terms of big ideas and disruptive technologies, but ongoing feedback is a critical part of a different and powerful kind of innovation—innovation as process (or incremental innovation).  (For an overview of the idea of innovation as process, try this article by Profs. Johanna Mair and Christian Seelos.)

This isn’t a radical or new idea. Successful businesses routinely prototype products before bringing them to market and update them based on customer feedback. In principle, there’s no reason why the government can’t do the same thing. But in reality, there are barriers.

First, there are (initially well-intentioned) laws that make creating ongoing feedback loops really difficult. If you’ve never worked for or with the U.S. federal government, you may not have heard of the Paperwork Reduction Act. It’s a law that governs what type of information federal agencies can gather from individuals and organizations and how they may do it. Clay Johnson, a former White House Fellow, does an excellent job in this podcast explaining why it needs to be rethought. Secondly, institutional culture and practices can get in the way. I don’t want to imply that government officials never talk to or listen to stakeholders. Of course, they do. However, in my experience, officials too often rely on a relatively small circle of recognized experts. They had excellent ideas, but I often wondered whether there were other different and promising ideas—perhaps from social workers who have gathered insights from years of on-the-ground work or youth who were served by a program and have ideas about how it could work better. This brings me to my final point— the federal government needs to get better at adopting technology that allows agencies to tap into a broader range of voices. (A task made more difficult by the Paperwork Reduction Act—you really should listen to that podcast.)

The enabling technology exists, and initiatives—particularly at the state and local level— are exploring how to better involve citizens in the design of programs. This report from IBM and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium details a range of strategies—and associated projects—that could allow for effective citizen engagement.  All Our Ideas, an open source tool for collecting citizen feedback on ideas or projects in a dynamic way, has been used in a planning project in New York City. Brazil used a similar model to engage citizens in the design of public health programs. The Obama Administration has sought to foster outside engagement in problem solving through initiatives like Challenge.gov. The challenge comes in building on initiatives like these, and adopting crowdsourcing and citizen feedback as a normal part of the business of federal agencies.

In future posts, I look forward to exploring more examples of how citizen and stakeholder feedback can be effectively used to inform program design and development—at all levels of government and in the social sector. Below are some questions I plan to explore on this blog—and because those of you in the crowd know better than me, I’d appreciate your help in answering them:

  • What are the most effective models for incorporating citizen feedback into the design of social programs? How did those models overcome barriers to tapping into the wisdom of the crowd (whether legal, cultural or otherwise)?
  • What are some examples of programs that failed due to a lack of feedback? How might things have turned out differently if citizens were more actively engaged?
  • How could experiences with citizen feedback in other countries inform U.S. domestic policy?

Thanks for reading my blog, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.