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Civic tech expert Cyd Harrell is passionate about helping governments create digital services that meet people where they are.
[1:23] Civic tech, explained.
[4:09] Metrics for public services have to be different from the private sector because growth really isn't the focus.
[7:54] How Cyd got started in civic design.
[13:23] Cyd talks through a project she worked on for California’s court system.
[22:13] How do civic tech projects get started anyway?
[32:46] How to work with stakeholders in the public sector.
[36:42] Checking your biases in civic research.
Cyd’s book: A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide
Rosenfeld Media’s Civic Design 2021
Code for America’s Slack channels
#CivicTech on Twitter
Cyd Harrell is a Civic Design Consultant at Five Seven Five LLC and a Service Design Lead at the Judicial Council of California. She has previously worked at Code for America, 18F, and Charles Schwab doing UX, research, and product work. She’s the author of A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide. Her favorite tools are empathy and duct tape.
Cyd: [00:00:00] I really enjoy this. You know, the idea of making it easier for somebody to pursue their rights in court is a really resonant problem for me. And something that it's exciting to be able to lend some design skills to, to do.
Erin: [00:00:34] Hello everybody and welcome back to awkward silences. Today we're here with Cyd Harrell, a civic design consultant, and we are very excited to be talking about civic, design research, a new topic for us and tons to cover. So thanks so much Cyd for joining us.
Cyd: [00:00:51] Thanks so much for having me.
Erin: [00:00:53] Got JH here too.
JH: [00:00:54] Yeah, Erin. I think we've always joked that if we do this long enough, it'll just become a politics podcast. And this might
Erin: [00:00:59] I know,
JH: [00:01:00] I know this is our moment. moment. Yeah, I'm sure we'll get into lots of hot topics.
Erin: [00:01:05] Um, but,
JH: [00:01:06] but,
Erin: [00:01:06] uh,
JH: [00:01:07] civic design research for folks listening, I'm sure there's a variance in terms of, you know, familiarity with civic tech design and what that entails. So, let's get started on the equal footing here.
What are we talking about when we talk tech design?
Cyd: [00:01:23] So civic tech is a whole field that aims to improve our experiences as citizens or residents of a particular place. And so that can often mean and usually in my case, working directly with the government to say that, you know, we should have public digital goods that are as good as the ones we can get from Apple and Amazon.
And we should really have strong public digital infrastructure so that everyone can access. All of the things that belong to a society means as well. I think usually with civic tech, there's also an explicit hope to build digital capacity within government organizations that may have been left out of some of the development in the private sector over the last decade or two.
So, if you see recent critiques of designs for vaccine registration, websites, or discussion of designs for vaccine passports, or if you've spent time obsessing as I have about your local COVID data websites, you know, those are all government interfaces that affect us quite a bit. And that working on those would definitely be a civic design type of undertaking.
Erin: [00:02:30] yeah, absolutely. When your health comes to mind immediately, I'm thinking of the rollout of public health, what's the word? The exchange, right. And how there were a couple of days where that was a little, little touch and go. And that was, you know, civic design was very top of mind
Cyd: [00:02:45] Oh, no, I was going to say That was a huge incident in the field, actually, because that failure that Erin's talking about when healthcare.gov site launched in 2013 and basically didn't work, no one could actually sign up for insurance. That was one of the signature initiatives of the Obama administration.
And it almost went down because of the website. And I think that directly led to the establishment of the federal civic tech groups the United States digital service and 18 F One of the things that's interesting about civic tech in the U S is that it has that federal branch that really came up after that incident in 2013, but it also had a municipal branch that came out of the open source and open data and open information movements.
And that had been percolating for a few years yet. So those two sort of. Streams of culture and practice are still merging together and trying to harmonize in the field, but there's a lot of organizations out there. You might have one in your city, it's called something like code for a place or open data, wherever that you might be able to join.
JH: [00:03:49] Oh, cool. Is it fair to think that the design part of civic tech design is kind of the same and like there's a lot of the same best practices and stuff that apply. And it's all of these just like other civic constraints and considerations that come into play or is actually like the design different because you're doing it in like for this public good. And it's different from a private design practice as well.
Cyd: [00:04:07] A lot of the practice. This is, and methods are very similar, but the constraints may be different. So something that you might consider an edge case in a private sector context might be something that you can't ignore until later. Like for example other languages. And access. It's not okay. In fact, it's illegal for public accommodations not to serve everyone.
And so you can't sort of leave accessibility cases until later, which in a way is really good. Forces us to practice in a way that I think is better. I think, you know, one of the other interesting things about it is that so much work on the web and in SaaS software, and even in apps in recent years has been about basically one of two models, either a sales funnel, where you're trying to convert people and make sure that they get all the way through a purchase or something like a, you know, an engagement driven media site of some kind.
And the metrics that were developed for those two broad use cases don't really fit something like getting a public benefit or doing a court case to exercise your rights in some particular matter. So we can't you know, the state of California can't set a metric that says it's better. If someone gets farther in the process of a divorce case, Or if more people filed divorce cases in a sort of growth marketing metric, right.
We want it to be easy for everybody who needs to do that, but it's really not appropriate for the state to have an opinion about whether someone should.
Erin: [00:05:40] Right. That is really interesting. If you think the job to be done here is to get a divorce. A bummer of a job, but it is real nonetheless. Right. And yeah. How do, what is the interest in the people sort of running these experiences to, to help drive those? Very interesting.
JH: [00:05:55] And who's working in this field mostly. Is it like people from the government sector who have leaned into the design side of things and learn those skills and stuff like that? Or was it people from the private sector with design backgrounds who come into the civic side? Is it both? Or like, what is it?
Is it a different background of people?
Cyd: [00:06:12] I would say it's often more than the latter who would formally say I'm a civic designer or I'm a civic technologist. That's me. I ran a private sector research firm for a number of years before moving over to the civic side. But I would also say that there are tons and tons of people who would barely even call themselves designers out in the public sector who make design decisions that affect lots of people every day.
So I kind of consider it my personal mission to help them make good ones and to bring along what I know of design practice, what I know of the design community to make that accessible to all those folks.
Erin: [00:06:45] That's really interesting. And how has that met? Right. People who don't, people who are designing, but don't necessarily consider themselves designers. Do, you know, open to their responsibility that whether, you know, whether they're yourself, a designer or not you are, and is that how that has met?
Cyd: [00:07:02] Right. I don't want to get into the design Twitter argument over whether everyone is a designer or not, but a lot of people make design decisions. And so, you know, sometimes it's kind of a welcome to Hogwarts moment. Oh, is that what I'm doing? You know, and, Oh, there are all these resources to help me do it.
Well. Sometimes people really. Don't see themselves that way and take pride in their status as a policy person or a data analyst or a compliance person or something like that. I think a lot like in the private sector, getting people who don't see their connection to design, to witness a user research session is a really huge, potentially magic turning point sometimes to understand how your work affects somebody who needs it.
So I definitely deploy that at least as much in my public sector work as my private sector work.
Erin: [00:07:49] so what made you get into this line of work? Moving from, you know, the kind of private to public
Cyd: [00:07:54] A couple of things. I have the sort of origin story I tell them about having a kid who was seven and who noticed something that was wrong on a drive we were on, it was one of our amazing San Francisco foggy days and the sprinklers were on and golden gate park, just spraying all over the road. And you know, she sort of pipes up to mommy.
We're wasting water. And she's like, well, we should do something. And of course I'm like, I can't think of anything I can do about that. That was sort of one moment that led me to start wondering why didn't I, as somebody who was at the time running a user research practice, why didn't I think of government as part of the domain I could work on why have we in the, you know, the several years that I had been there had one government project And I discovered at the time, this was around 2010, 2011 code for America and its fellowship.
And then this whole world of hackathons and so forth where city halls were releasing data sets and engineers were getting together on weekends at city halls and building stuff based on the datasets. The first time I showed up, I was pretty afraid I would get thrown out. I don't code. And there was another design, Twitter argument.
I don't want to get into whether designers should, but I don't beyond a little bit of HTML and CSS stuff. And so I showed up and was well, here's what I can do. And you know, there was a team that I can help with some UX design and it turned out people were really excited about it.
So I. Kind of continued going to those hackathons for a while. And then I don't know if you remember in 2012, when Facebook was basically buying every design agency that it could get its hands on. That little research firm that I was at was bought and sort of had a choice. I was just about 40 or had just turned 40 and thinking about, you know, where do I want to take my career at this point, as I've really gained a maturity and a stature in the field, do I want to go into public service or do I want to go to Facebook and probably make a lot more money?
And partly because my other half had made more of the latter choice fairly recently, I felt like I had the freedom to make the public sector choice. So my first six months or so in the field, I was doing a pro bono project. And then I eventually convinced code for America to hire me on to staff in 2013.
Erin: [00:10:21] Fantastic. I'm in the sprinklers. Are they still running or uh, that's uh,
We finished that what happened was, you know, in my desperation to not let down my child or give her the idea that, you know, we shouldn't try to improve our cities in our environments. I pulled over and I had heard that had gotten onto Twitter and I sent them an app message. Saying, you know, the sprinklers are spraying all over the road in this part of the park.
And they shouldn't be doing that in this weather and driving back from the day camp, I was taking her to, I got a message back. That was a reply that just said, thank you. And here's a ticket number. And if you don't see improvement in this within 24 hours, here's how you can contact us. And that was this instance of, you know, my local government.
I would have had no idea who to call about the sprinklers in the park, but that I could just send it to this one address and get a message back and sure enough, the next day the sprinklers were off. So that kind of completed this idea that, Oh, that was an interaction. I work on interactions. And that was a good interaction.
A lot of ways met me where I was. And later, of course, I got to think much more about all the complexities of access and whose voice gets heard via those kinds of apps and how we can expand that. But it was a striking moment for me to just realize that with this device I had, in my hand, I could save the city some resources and get a concern answered.
JH: [00:11:56] Yeah it's so cool. When that stuff works. I live in a small city in Salem, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. And when there's an app called SeeClickFix and you can report stuff that way and I'll scan through there sometimes stuff in the neighborhood. And like somebody pointed out that this drainage ditch was running parallel with the street and like a bike tire could get stuck in it.
And they, their suggestion was, can you just turn it? So it's perpendicular. And the city did it like 12 hours later and was like, this is really cool to see like actually stuff gets fixed. It's still so different than what you normally think of.
Cyd: [00:12:23] Right. Yeah. And then, you know, now as we are more than a year into this pandemic, and we kind of see that, you know, government isn't really an option in a situation like this. It's something we absolutely need and really need to work. And I think there have been a couple of new organizations started like us digital response which is specifically a volunteer organization aimed at providing help to governments in emergencies like this.
But it's just a real moment to reflect on, you know, how important it is that we, as a society are able to help each other when something like this goes down,
Erin: [00:12:58] Yeah. So given the sort of vast web of domains that is civic tech, right. It might be useful to hop into a couple of specific sorts of surface areas that you've worked on in these past nine or 10 years. So I know one of them was, you know, kind of digging into the non-criminal court system in California.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Cyd: [00:13:23] Yeah, that was fascinating I think, I think you were probably talking about a research study that we did in 2018. We were granted a lot of access to visit courts in California and we spent at least a day at 20 of California's 58 County courts. And this was part of a project to make better digital services for self-represented litigants, which is a heck of a mouthful, but it means anybody who's doing a court case without a lawyer.
And it's specifically the civil justice system. And you may think that's, you know, that's not as dire as the criminal justice system and just generally involve depriving you of your Liberty or. Anything like that. However, there's some really important life impacting stuff in the civil justice system.
Like we were saying divorce and family law, custody of kids guardianships of kids, if that's necessary getting a restraining order against someone at work or for domestic violence fighting an eviction Changing your name. If you're going through a gender transition or gender recognition, any of those things would be handled in a civil court system and lawyers are pretty expensive.
So California has a sort of policy leaning that they want to make it possible for people to pursue a court case on their own. And I think that statistic is something like. California does about 7.5 million court cases a year. And then 80% of the non-criminal ones, at least one of the sides doesn't have a lawyer.
So we were trying to just get a picture of that ecosystem and understand what do people need and what might we be able to provide? Via electronic means to help people go through these processes. So we got to do a lot of things. We went to court waiting rooms and just talked to people who were sitting there, looking scared, holding a set of papers.
And almost everybody in a court waiting room looks kind of scared and tense. It's really a place where really significant things happen. And there was a little bit of fiction that maybe people are scared of technology, but a lot of the time, what people are scared of is consequential paperwork that they had somehow missed checking a box and would lose custody of their kids because of it or something like that, which is really intense.
Right? The idea that you could, you know, you could mess up some little bit of things on a hard to understand form and have a huge impact in your life. So we also got to sit behind the desks with the court clerks, where they receive people's filings and do all the stamping and making copies to make them official.
We got to meet with court leadership. We usually would ask court staff if there was a good place to get tacos nearby and just see if we could walk to lunch with them and hear anything about what they saw as challenges for people who are trying to do this on their own. And then, because we work consulting with the central body of the courts, we had access to a lot of attorneys who work on this.
So we got to see. And we also got to just sit in courtrooms and, you know, sitting in a domestic violence restraining order calendar for a couple of hours and just seeing what people are bringing before the court, there will really give you a moment to see why we have court and almost why we have laws.
And. Of course you have questions like, you know, I was saying that almost any court process is scary there too, that people who hang around the court's name as joyful one is adoption and one is somebody getting a name change that they really want, or gender recognition and being affirmed as themselves by the court.
So those are the sort of two fun, joyful cases. But other than that, People are at court for pretty heavy reasons. And sometimes people are at court because they've been traumatized. And so using research practices as much as possible, it won't retraumatize people. So that sometimes means doing more proxy research with the organizations and people who assist people in those especially difficult situations like domestic violence.
But what we ended up understanding most, I think was that. Almost everybody has a really hard time understanding what the heck is going on with their court process. It's like an unfamiliar system. It is an unfamiliar system and figuring out where they are and how to take the next step is this critical need that just wasn't being served.
Except by having to come all the way to a courthouse, which in some counties might be a lot of driving. And wait in line to talk to somebody. So we ended up actually doing a lot of content strategy work, and some of this was getting into beta now, but around how to present legal process in bite pieces that somebody can read on a phone and understand what to do and place themselves within the process.
Like, okay, I have. Filed the papers now. And I got back a stamped copy from the clerk. So now what I need to do is serve the other person and here's the instructions for how to do that. And just walk people through that in as few words as possible, which also makes it easier to translate and in a way that hopefully the typical Californian can understand.
JH: [00:18:55] You mentioned obviously a lot of this stuff being so emotional and traumatic and ways and a lot. There's a lot here, so I'm not going to try to rephrase it all. You did a very good job. But when you did get somebody to talk to you, whether it was, you know, somebody trying to represent themselves or somebody who works for the court or whatever, was there, like, what was the reaction?
Were people excited that somebody was trying to make this stuff better and help them? Or were people apprehensive or standoffish or was it just all over the map? Like what was the dynamic once you were able to sit, you know, sit and speak with somebody.
Cyd: [00:19:20] It was kind of all over the map. You know, I think. Parties to cases where in some ways leave scared. And I, you know, I thought a lot about making it really clear who we were and why we were there and who we were working for. But at the same time, a lot of people walk up to you in a court waiting room.
And so there's a sort of, you know, are you one more person? And I just can't deal with it right now, which is totally fine. Or, you know, can you actually help me with my case, which I can't or. Sure. I've got nothing else to do. I'm here for who knows how long, and I'll talk to you happily for 15 minutes.
Staff were generally pretty eager to talk to us. I think, you know, it's often interesting to just talk to her professional from a different perspective and hear their sympathetic reaction to what you face as part of your job. And we were, of course, sanctioned by court leadership. We didn't go anywhere.
We weren't invited, people had sent out an email saying we'd be there. So internal staff didn't feel like we were invading or, you know, likely to do something inappropriate. And I'm very careful how I talk about it because you know, some of the things we were told, I should only talk about an aggregate and I do only talk about an aggregate.
But as we have started to produce these digital services that help people figure things out, we're actually starting to see more interest from some of the people that we initially saw in research studies now, and maybe learning to do a little bit of this themselves and, you know, test some of the flyers and forms that they put together.
And again, they're turning into the kind of public servants who make some design decisions, even if they wouldn't call themselves designers.
Erin: [00:21:35] yeah, it was, you know, at the beginning we were talking a little bit about metrics and, you know, incentives in terms of right. Like the sales funnel and things like that. And I'm curious about this particular project. Obviously there's millions of people, right? You said something like 6 million people are you know, part of these civil trials and 87% of them have, right.
So millions of people are involved in representing themselves in these civic cases. So there's obviously a volume of constituents here, but who is fighting for what outcome here? Like how does a project like this come to the desk of Cyd Harrell?
Cyd: [00:22:16] That's a very smart question. So there are a couple of things that are really important to the courts. You know, obviously primarily fairness and justice. That is the point. So there's certainly a sense that. In many cases, if a self-represented litigant is up against a litigant with a lawyer, the self-represented litigant may be disadvantaged.
And so the system tries to at least offer enough procedural information too. Even that out a little bit then in terms of court operations, when people don't know how to do things, have to redo them, do them wrong. It gums up the works of a smoothly operating court. So there's a motivation just from court efficiency.
Which is the purview of there's a whole court operation staff that does things like scheduling the courtrooms and estimating how many interpreters they need to have on site, all that kind of stuff. And between those two and a report that our chief justice commissioned back in, I think 2017 called the chief justices futures report saying at some point.
Courts are going to need to step forward a little bit and meet constituents more where they are in the world of computers and smartphones. Those three motivations together make a push. And then a friend who had done a small pilot project, had an opportunity to make a proposal. And right at the time, when I was finishing my term at 18, AF invited me to join that proposal.
And that sort of high level, you know, needs in the court system together with knowing somebody who was on the spot, put me in place to start doing some of that consulting work.
JH: [00:24:01] Cool. And when you start a project like that, Is there already a plan or resources for how any suggestions or ideas that come out of this research can be moved forward? Or is it more like done in phases where let's understand the problem and see what ideas we can uncover and then we'll figure out how to actually move any of these improvements forward later on.
Cyd: [00:24:24] Was mostly done in phases with a presumption of what the second phase would be and which we adjusted a little bit, but not too much. It was funny. The first day I showed up, I sort of introduced myself and talked about my past government experience. And everybody looked at me like I had two heads and said, why are you telling us about your government experience?
We're not the government. And I was sitting there in this state government office building with all these people whose email addresses had.gov on the end. Wait, what is happening here? And it turned out to make a lot of sense, which, you know, things so often do in that for a lot of court cases, one of the parties is the government, people are suing the government or the government is prosecuting someone.
And so to identify themselves, as part of the government would have been to break that primary fairness value that they saw as a key piece. So everybody talks about the judicial branch and refers to it as the branch rather than the government.
Erin: [00:25:23] Yeah, lots of I've been reeducating myself a lot the last few years in my civics, on the executive and judicial branch, particularly at the
federal level, it gets a little interesting.
Cyd: [00:25:36] Yes.
Erin: [00:25:38] Right. Let's dig into it. Sorry, go ahead. I was going to say, you know, maybe we could talk about another example just to highlight some of the similarities and differences, right.
Between the civic tech and the civic tech, the private tech, I suppose. I know you've worked on unemployment systems, right? And to me, I suppose there are folks who are unfortunately spending a lot of time with unemployment systems but both of these have. Would seem to have in common to me at least there's, you know, a moment in your life where now you're part of this particular system where maybe, you know, you weren't before.
Um, So, yeah, w what's it like to research this other area of SIG civic tech.
Cyd: [00:26:17] Yeah, that was actually some of the most intense research I've ever done. So what that was in spring of 2020, just a few weeks after the pandemic had really locked everything down. A famous researcher named Dana Nell pulled together a team to do a project on behalf of a national conference on citizenship and new America.
And the question was less sort of usability stuff about unemployment systems than. What is, you know, what is the full experience of trying to get access to benefits during this really extraordinary moment? And we had. Probably the first time ever in my career where a sponsor has taken the fast, cheap, and good triad and chosen fast and good.
So, I really felt so supported by new America. Decision to do things the way they did. We had nine researchers. We had access to a set of policy makers every Monday to tell them all the stories that we had collected in the previous week. And we did a really ethnographic style of interviewing with people across the country to find out, you know, what kind of job were you working in?
How did you find out things were shutting down? How have you tried to access unemployment benefits? What kind of workarounds have you done? Does anybody else help you besides the government? Are you helping anybody else, how are you feeling? What is this doing to you and your family? What will happen to you if this continues much further and Some of the stories that we heard were astounding and some of them connected, you know, directly back to usability issues.
And one of the people that I interviewed was a woman who had been a remote SIS admin for a few years and had a previous bout of him unemployment back in 2009. And. Had been unable to access benefits after she was laid off this time, because she couldn't recover her password from 2009 based on a piece of personal data and an email account that she no longer had.
But she had been sitting there waiting for it. 12 or 14 weeks at the point that I interviewed her with almost no response and sort of tapping every family resource that she had while trying to give friends 20 bucks for gas here and there. And, you know, we had another story from a young immigrant whose parents owned a dry cleaning business that had a course crushed in business when people stopped going out and going to the office and had to try to help them through the alphabet soup of programs that, you know, to their credit Congress got passed really quickly at the beginning of the pandemic, the PPP, and the I'm gonna forget all the actual acronyms now, but three or four different acronyms, right?
So we got a huge range of qualitative stories and the way that Dana led this was that if you were the primary researcher on an interview, you would write up a two to four page story within a few hours. That was like the second thing you did after you paid the person. And that was another really cool thing.
Was they sponsored an immediate pay program on the understanding that somebody in those circumstances needed the research incentive right away. So we did things you're usually not allowed to do. Like some people have cash app payment
JH: [00:29:40] Oh, that's great.
Cyd: [00:29:41] Yeah. So we put out basically binders or, you know, electronic binders of these two to four page stories.
And then we did some really interesting synthesis processes looking at. Every mention of time and waiting across 50 different interviews and where people got hung up and how much time the waiting strung out on average we did one about metaphors that I led that was about how people describe things.
And if you're a researcher and you've heard five or six of these, how would you describe the overall feeling? And that sort of drove us to this canonical story, which was the idea that. And the spring of 2020 people were trapped in a game that they didn't know how to play, and they definitely didn't know how to win.
And that kind of became a big headline to send to these legislative aides and so forth to give them a hook and how to communicate about it. It was really interesting. I wish the political climate had allowed Congress to pass further aid before the election, but it really did take a new administration to get that, to go through.
Erin: [00:30:41] You were talking about, I got stuck playing this game. I don't know how to play and I don't know how to win, which I think is probably how a lot of us thought in many aspects of this past year. But especially something like you lost your job, you just want enough money to, you know, get by and it's, you know, the money's there,
but you don't know how to get it.
Cyd: [00:31:03] You thought perhaps that your society had your back and for a lot of people, it was a first experience of their society. Not having their back less privileged people expected it more, you know, there was a certain resigned, well, okay. So. You know, the government isn't working for me again, I've got backups or I have heard of having to make backups, but quite a few privileged people were surprised and I hope you gained some perspective on why we all might need government services at some point, and why it matters for them to be good.
Erin: [00:31:40] right. And so we talk a lot in you know, in UX research circles for private enterprises about. The difficulty and the importance of taking your insights, making sense of them, but then getting them to the stakeholders who can act on them. And so I'm curious about the particular challenges and solutions, right?
How do you overcome those challenges to be effective in a government context. I just imagine, I don't know. I, is it, are there like three people who can solve, you know, unemployment benefits or how do you affect that change? You talked about really needing this change in administration ultimately, but how do you get from what we have, I have a sense of what the frustrations are.
The stories people are telling themselves where we need to get, how do we get there?
Cyd: [00:32:42] So there's a lot of complexity in how you get it done in government at a municipal level. If your city needs to improve something on the, have a pretty decent relationship with a tech vendor who helps them do it. Maybe there's not so much friction. If we're talking about the unemployment system in the U S it's actually administered by the state.
So right away, we're talking about 50 governments and some of them have different policies about how much their systems are tuned to deliver assistance versus prevent fraud versus, you know, protect some other value that is there. Their voters and their constituents have decided it was important. So, Building relationships is probably top of the list.
Whatever, you know, there are some of these digital teams that have been established where the team has a relationship that, you know, has been built by the early people in it. And you can join and play a role in that. But if you're going in as a consultant on a small consulting team, you're generally okay.
Yeah, working as hard as you can to build relationships through all the usual means of, you know, showing valuable information to people who might not have had it and contextualizing it. And yeah, giving lots of presentations and sending lots of emails and especially on the government side, making some PDF reports because that's effective for the audience. But it's also, you know, Often things like being able to quickly make a prototype can really shift a conversation inside a public sector organization. That's used to procuring much of its tech work from outside. If you're sort of embedded you'd say, well, you know what? We roughed up this page where people can look up courthouses based on a Google sheet we did of all the locations.
And you know, here's a really rough look at what an interaction might look like. Do you think we can proceed with this? That can really get attention and, you know, shift a conversation into, okay, well, you know, how long is it going to take? And who's it really going to serve and all of the right questions to be asking. It's a great deal of coaching and organizational work a lot of the time and, you know, learning I wouldn't be very effective if I didn't do a lot of listening to attorneys about what's important because a lot of their experience influences everything that's possible within the system.
JH: [00:35:11] Yeah. I mean, like you've done it for awhile now. Right? It feels like it's almost like doing user research and design work in a pro mode where it's like, the stuff you're working on is so consequential and so impactful. And there's so many different constraints and limitations and factors to navigate.
Like, has it been rewarding? Like, it seems like you're still very much invested in this space. Like, has that stuff all shaken out to be, you know, in a more engaging set of work than like the private sector.
Cyd: [00:35:38] Yeah, there's definitely private sector work that ticks some of those boxes too, but I really. I really enjoy this. I definitely enjoy it most in a community where I have kind of, you know, a loose posse out there of a lot of people who care about the same things and can support each other when it's hard.
you know, the idea of making it easier for somebody to pursue their rights in court is a really resonant problem for me. And something that it's exciting to be able to lend some design skills to, to do.
Erin: [00:36:10] What is your thought on? So the UX researchers role, right, is you're gathering insights, you're sharing insights. Are you unbiased in your research gathering, but not in your. Research sharing, like, where is your point of view your boss? Like hopefully a positive bias. Right. But where is, what is the role of your point of view before after research what's your moral obligation in the context of a civic design to have an opinion, right.
Versus be like, quote unquote objective, right? Yeah.
Cyd: [00:36:52] Right? I think there's a really important one. You know, my perspective is often bracketed and that I refuse to avoid sharing it, but in some settings, if I, you know, want to not pollute a data set I will say, you know, here's my assumption. Here's what I thought beforehand. I often do a practice with a team of writing down our assumptions beforehand, just so that we can check if the research is reinforcing our biases and make sure that if it does that, that it's for real reasons you can absolutely use these same tools to do what I would consider evil.
Right. You can make a tool that, that denies more people, what they need or helps, you know, bring more people into the criminal justice system or there's a really interesting policy shift example that I talk about in my book which is marijuana policy over the last 25 years or so, where, you know, in the mid nineties, Illegal just about everywhere.
A few cities sort of made it a law enforcement priority for police and now legal, at least for medical purposes and the majority of States in the country and legal for represent or recreational purposes and a lot of the country. And governments are kind of reckoning with how do they design that transition?
And how do they think about, for example, you know, people who. Took the brunt of the enforcement under the previous policies. And now there's maybe an legitimate industry developing, should they, or shouldn't they lift up those people who this being America, people who took the brunt were mostly black people provide them with assistance in getting into the legitimate side of the industry.
I c. Care a fair amount about how we work out questions like that. And I think it could get, you know, mainly boring and frustrating to do this work if you don't. A lot of people in government work are in it at least partly because they have a real motivation to serve their community or serve their country.
So not to get too high flown, but I think socially we're engaged in a really wide debate about. Who gets full membership in our institutions and what membership in an institution means and kind of what those defaults will be going forward. And I have a pretty good idea of where I stand on it.
And I also have a responsibility to recognize that, you know, Not all of my personal preferences will be expressed in every administration I work for. So I'm careful about, you know, either seeing where I align or where I don't misalign too badly. It's, it can be really tricky. Yeah. I sometimes say to people that, you know, if you couldn't work for a sort of median or normal administration of the opposite party from your own.
Maybe working directly with the government isn't for you, but there are whole other pieces of this ecosystem. You could work for campaign tech or health issue, oriented nonprofits and advocacy group groups, do things like register voters and get people IDs or you could work for one of the civic tech startups that doesn't have the same obligation, for example, that the court has to provide services to both sides of the case or. There are a lot of ways to do it, to align with your own values.
JH: [00:40:08] You mentioned it quickly. Do you want to just plug your book? I know it's on my good reads and I see it on Twitter all the time. So I probably should give it a shout out before we wrap up.
Cyd: [00:40:16] Oh, that's very kind of you. Yeah. I wrote a short book called a civic technologist practice guide. That's basically an onboarding guide and survival manual for doing this work and it should be available anywhere you buy books. You might have to ask a book seller to order it, but they can get it in for you.
Erin: [00:40:30] Fantastic. And we'll link that in the write up too, for sure. What were our final thoughts? What did we not ask you that we thought we should have.
Cyd: [00:40:40] How to get started maybe for
Erin: [00:40:42] Sure.
JH: [00:40:42] Yeah, it's gonna be close. Yeah.
Cyd: [00:40:44] Okay. So a couple of great ways to get started. Are those organizations I mentioned a little earlier code for Tulsa code for Insert your city or open data. There's also us digital response, which supports governments in responding to the pandemic.
And then if you think you're pretty ready to do this there are digital service teams in quite a few of our bigger cities. And at this point six States, and then there's two of them in the federal government. So, look for something called a digital innovation team or mayor's office of innovation or at the federal level, the United States digital service in 18 F and then there's a whole set of consultancies that also work with those federal and state actors, mostly like, A one M and bloom works and Nava and pluribus and a whole set of folks who are taking this explicitly civic tech perspective into work with the federal and state governments on major issues like unemployment and those types of systems.
Erin: [00:41:47] You mentioned the importance of community in this line of work. Are there communities that you're part of that others can join or
Cyd: [00:41:56] Code for America has a really large Slack that connects all of those code for groups that are part of it. It's a pretty active community on Twitter, and I'm starting to see, I know Rosenfeld media just announced a conference that's coming up late this year and civic design. That's going to be curated by a couple of really great folks in the field.
So. They are, I think, pretty committed to developing communities around their conferences. So I expect that to be a really nice connector to the broader world of design too.
Erin: [00:42:24] Fantastic. Cyd thanks so much for joining. It's been fantastic.
JH: [00:42:28] Yes, it's great.
Cyd: [00:42:30] My pleasure. It was really great to meet you.
Senior Content Creator
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.
Leadership & Strategy
July 26, 2021
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