By Tina Barseghian What makes a community flourish? It’s a subjective question, and the answer depends on what each community needs, of course. But even weighing the many variables from city to city, a few universal themes emerged at the NationSwell Summit Roadmap to the Future, a recent gathering of civic leaders who had assembled to share proven solutions. These tactical and practical insights could help to build inclusive and forward-thinking communities that respond to residents’ needs. #1. LISTEN — AND RESPOND — TO YOUR COMMUNITY “Every decent idea I’ve had came from my community,” said Richard Berry, mayor of Albuquerque. “Those ideas came from a 16-year-old student, a refugee, a panhandler, and a homeless person.” A 16-year-old came up with the idea that led to the Running Start for Careers program, after Berry heeded his advice while visiting an industrial arts class. The program develops industry-taught elective classes in high school for which students receive school credit. Students graduate with an industry certificate — whether it’s in film, or medical sciences or lab sciences — to show potential employers. Since the program was launched, Berry said that 1,200 kids, particularly Latino boys, who were at 45 percent graduation rate, are now at 98 percent on-time graduation. [caption id="attachment_4547" align="alignright" width="300"] Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry, center. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.[/caption] “That’s just listening to a kid,” said Berry. “Everything has to do with listening and doing with intentionality.” Another program — connecting panhandlers with a day’s worth of work cleaning city streets, and providing lunch and access to service they need — blossomed out of a conversation Berry had with a panhandler. “I saw that he was holding a sign that said, ‘I want a job,’” Berry said. “We took him at his word.” The program, called There’s a Better Way, was piloted with $50,000, and is now being scaled and replicated around the city. Since 2015, 4,000 day jobs have been offered; more than 400 people have been connected with employment services; nearly 700 city blocks have been cleaned; and nearly 200,000 pounds of litter has been removed. During Berry’s tenure, Albuquerque was voted the second Best Run City in the nation with a population of more than 500,000. To mayors and city leaders, he says: “Listen with intention, and don’t underestimate the power of pilot projects. Your community will support you. Lower the barrier of risk for your community and they’ll let you do what you need,” he said. In Los Angeles, FUSE fellow Aparna Mukherjee is working to create a model for inclusive civic engagement, soliciting community input to ensure that Angelinos’ voices are represented in decision-making and policy. #2. ADDRESS RACIAL DISPARITY IN EDUCATION “Race is the enduring American challenge,” said John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education, and president and CEO of The Education Trust, in a panel discussion called Equity and Opportunity for All. “The reality is there just beneath the surface. What I hope comes from this era is to acknowledge it, to get to the roots of systemic inequality.” Cities are racially and economically isolated, King said, and many Latino and black students go to schools that have far fewer resources than their wealthier neighbors. These students are following the rules, and still not succeeding. “People live very separate lives,” King said. “There are solutions, but there’s a gap in political will.” [caption id="attachment_4549" align="alignright" width="300"] Panelists Brittany Packnett, left, and John King, center. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.[/caption] Part of the solution is building a common lexicon. Understanding the difference between the words diversity, inclusion, equity and equality are imperative, said Brittany Packnett, Vice President of National Community Alliances for Teach for America and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform initiative. “Diversity is wonderful, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Inclusion is the next step, where [people] feel welcome in the room. Equity means they have the same outcomes regardless of their background. That’s not the same as equality, which means everyone gets the same. We often stop the conversation at diversity. If we’re lucky, we get to inclusion, and people don’t know the difference between equity and equality.” At the same time, more people of color are rising up in leadership roles in education, Packnett said: “Black and brown school leaders...are bringing our experiences and leading conversations.” So what are the calls to action? “Most fundamentally, get political,” King said. “We have to change how we organize society. People need to run for office at the local level — city counselors, school boards. And elect people who are going to do the right thing.” For Packnett, it’s about perspective. “We have to get real about the structures and institutions that have created a stratified society,” she said. “And when you do decide to act, make the decision to fight for something instead of just against something. If you knit something together that comes from hate, that will come apart. Coalitions remain together when you work together for something...fight for truth, justice, love, and equity.” In Stockton, Calif., where nearly 40 percent of students are considered “ethnically diverse,” and only 19 percent of third-graders are at reading level, FUSE fellow Jason Weiner is working to connect at-risk kids to higher education opportunities and reconceive how young people are educated from cradle to career. #3. RESPECT YOUR ELDERS America, as a population, is getting older. The number of people age 65 and over grew from 35 million in 2000 to 49.2 million in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s 15.2 percent of the total population. Considering these staggering numbers, how can we, at society level and in local communities, help to make sure this population gains access to what they need, in a way that gives them a sense of independence, dignity, and value? Until very recently, it was common for people to have one steady path through their lives with three distinct stages — study, work, retire — but it’s time to move away from that model as a society. “Now people are continuously studying, continuously working, and continuously having micro retirements,” said Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, a data analytics firm during a panel called “The Well Lived-Life.” (Narayan gave a well-known TED Talk earlier this year “What I Learned from 2000 Obituaries.”) [caption id="attachment_4545" align="alignright" width="300"] Panelists Anu Partanen and Lux Narayan with moderator Kamili Wilson. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.[/caption] Differences in income levels are leading to how people live as they age. Disparities in race, health, income, must be addressed when designing new systems, products, and services we all rely upon to improve our lives, he said. In Nordic countries, for example, social services are guaranteed for the elderly, with the goal of helping them become more independent. Seniors are provided with home visits to teach them how to access the public services they need, said Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything. “The more difficult it gets to get health care, the harder it becomes to have a secure financial future, and harder to live independent lives,” she said. “What kinds of simple, easy-to-use functional services we can create to help elders?” In Long Beach, Calif., where more than 22 percent of Long Beach’s elderly residents will be living below the poverty line by 2025, FUSE Fellow Karen Doolittle is working to improve the quality of life for senior residents by designing a coordinate system of health and social services. #4. INFUSE CAPITAL IN CITIES BEYOND SILICON VALLEY In towns across America’s heartland, there's great promise for new enterprises that can and should be sprouting up fueled by risk capital, said J.D. Vance, author of the popular book Hillbilly Elegy, as he Skyped in to a session called Navigating the Land of Opportunity. For this to happen, venture capitalists need to free themselves from their psychological and physical attachment to Silicon Valley. “[For some Silicon-Valley-based investors], if they can’t drive to a company, they won’t invest,” Vance said. “But you can put risk capital in so many areas that could be used efficiently.” Talent is also a critical piece of the puzzle. Stanford and U.C. Berkeley offer an exciting pool of talent to Silicon Valley, but Vance was quick to point out that Indianapolis and Columbus are also home to world-class universities. “They can attract talent, train talent and create intellectual property,” he said. “They don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to do that. They can still have a vibrant ecosystem that works.” And contrary to what some tech investors might believe, software isn’t the only potential growth industry. For example, in Indianapolis, Vance said, venture capitalists have invested in a company that’s working to develop cheaper and faster ways to test the water supply, responding to the pressing need in that city. “There are lots of companies that fit that model,” Vance said. “They’re built on an anchor industry that’s unique to that particular place.” Ripe opportunity for investment. Vance called on summit attendees to get involved in challenges on a local level to help build more economic opportunity in different areas of the country. “There are folks not that far away from you who are struggling,” he said. “Don’t discount the positive impact one-to-one relationships can have on people. By helping them, we can build bridges.” In Pittsburgh, FUSE fellow Cynthia Shields is working to strengthen the pipeline of skilled workers by aligning programs and strategies; and in Philadelphia, FUSE fellow Barry Wilkins is working to provide better job opportunities for underserved populations by building partnerships with local businesses, industry organizations, educational institutions and city agencies.
Four Ways to Build Strong Communities
The San Francisco Ethics Commission was established to provide education and enforcement of ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying laws. FUSE Fellow Gayathri Thaikkendiyil was tasked with developing a plan to redesign and modernize the commission’s website and e-filing project, with the ultimate goal of increasing public engagement and government accountability. She brought together key stakeholders such as staff, city employees, and the general public to capture user feedback on the content and design for the website. She also led a process to create online tools, guidance materials, and training content to support compliance among city officials and employees for filing financial disclosures. And she helped develop new systems that enhanced the commission’s online data disclosure capabilities by automating, redesigning, and streamlining data content on the city’s open data portal. Gayathri’s work helped the agency focus on broader organizational goals and priorities with an emphasis on improving user engagement, user experience, and operational efficiencies. Here's how she did it. By Gayathri ThaikkendiyilLast year, I began my fellowship at the Ethics Commission with a clear objective: to improve the online presence of ethics-related compliance and disclosure information ultimately to help increase public engagement and to strengthen accountability in local government through improved legal compliance. The Commission holds a large, broad, and varied swath of information, including compliance requirements and procedures, forms and instructions, pertinent laws, public disclosures, open data, policy proposals, staff reports, enforcement updates, public notices, and audit reports. For most people, these topics can be complex to interpret and navigate, so the goal was to present them in a format that’s interactive and engaging, and can help regular users quickly find the services they use most. For instance, the site should be as accessible to a campaign committee looking to file a financial statement, as to a member of the public who wants to learn about the Commission for the first time. Getting a thorough understanding of the types of end-users was going to be instrumental in providing them relevant and useful information in a user-friendly manner that caters to their unique needs. Based on the day-to-day interactions with the public, the agency over time had developed a good knowledge base of common-use cases, especially of those who actively engage with the Commission’s programs and initiatives. The services and communications on the site need to be easily understandable and accessible to a broad range of people with diverse needs, digital skills, and familiarity with the subject matter. FACT FINDING My biggest challenge at the outset — to understand exactly what those end-users need — was going to be the hardest part, because there were not many avenues available to directly gather information from end-users about their experiences with the Commission. I used several approaches to address this gap. As a first step, I focused on surveying internal stakeholders to capture the institutional knowledge about online and offline user requests and interactions, and the processes that supported those activities. One-on-one and group discussions with staff members helped identify and prioritize critical use cases of the services offered by the agency. Understanding the importance of human-centered design, I also conducted interviews and user-testing sessions with some of the end-users to get their feedback about specific aspects of the content design, user interfaces, and service delivery. These sessions helped clarify users’ expectations, verify key assumptions, and narrow down the areas of improvements. For example, I learned that the online information pertaining to financial disclosure requirements was not structured in a way that was easy for the filers to understand. Users also shared that they were expecting to see specific keywords and language on the site to direct them to the information they were looking for. This type of feedback was valuable to help pinpoint the problem areas, which I addressed iteratively to improve the overall user experience. I then took it one step further to gather feedback at a broader scale. I created online surveys that were designed to capture the users’ comments regarding their experiences, challenges, and suggestions. This exercise surfaced up the programmatic changes that needed to be incorporated into the agency’s day-to-day operations and also helped identify specific enhancements for the web content and design. To continue gathering feedback from users on an ongoing basis and capture their emerging needs, I worked with the agency’s staff to design an online feedback form that we embedded on every page on the website. This facilitated direct and real-time communication with the support team, which enabled the team to be agile and responsive to users’ immediate needs. REACHING OUT TO THE UNDERSERVED Now that I had a foundational understanding of the active users, I wanted to focus on gathering feedback from those who used the agency’s services less often, and potential users who were unfamiliar with the agency. To that end, I collaborated with the agency’s staff and the city’s Public Voice program team to conduct resident user-testing sessions. The program invited city residents to participate in testing the agency’s website on desktop and mobile platforms. This model is a great way to incorporate a feedback loop in a city’s service design process to gather input from residents, before the launch of a new service. These testing sessions provided valuable insights about our website including feedback on the layout, content, usability, and site features, and helped surface unmet needs. One of the key benefits of these sessions was that they helped us understand the user experiences of new visitors, which were quite different from those of our active users. We identified incremental changes that could significantly transform the experience of a new user, covering aspects such as choice of words, placement of content, information gaps, and intuitive navigation. My user research also included understanding the experiences of differently-abled individuals, to better serve their needs. Along with the agency’s staff, I consulted with accessibility subject matter experts to identify design changes that made it easier for differently-abled users to access the content, for example, correctly tagging web elements to help blind individuals better navigate the site through screen readers. There are well-established best practices that can be incorporated into a web design to ensure that city services can reach all types of users. Overall, these initiatives provided the agency a tried and tested framework of techniques that can help the Commission more closely engage with the public, as well as a user-focused mindset to design content and services that directly support the users’ needs. What I Learned Over the course of the year, working on this project exposed me to the specific needs, challenges, and constraints that are unique to the public sector. These are some of the insights I learned about getting traction in local government: 1. Leverage the wealth of knowledge of internal experts. As much as it is important to understand the end-user experience, it is also crucial to understand the experiences of those delivering the services. Staff members who interface with users, online or offline, can help clarify key assumptions and goals behind a service implementation. They can also help us learn more about the users and about the solutions that have already been tried in the organization. 2. Experiment ideas using incremental changes. City departments are often extremely tight on resources so big ideas are not easy to implement due to budget, timeline, or operational constraints. But there’s always a way to break down the scope of an idea into manageable and realistic pieces that can be tested iteratively with much fewer resources. This can help us validate specific aspects of the solution relatively quickly and get us one step closer to the desired end state. 3. Collaborate with others who are solving the same problems. Although city departments may be different functionally, many have the same goals, like providing quality service to residents, service accessibility, public disclosure, complying with city laws, and addressing resource constraints. The act of intentionally reaching out to other departments to explore different solutions can greatly expedite the problem-solving process. 4. Implement feedback loops. User-focused design cannot be approached as a onetime activity. It needs to be integrated into all aspects of operations on a day-to-day basis. Identifying and implementing user feedback mechanisms, be it online or offline, are extremely vital to continually engage the users and flexibly adapt to their evolving needs. This article originally appeared on Meeting of the Minds.
Creating Transparency for Equitable Government