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Better public services start with teaching civil servants to design

Better public services start with teaching civil servants to design

29 July 2014 Written by By Dave Seliger Co-founder of Civic Service and New York civil servant

Dave Seliger is co-founder of Civic Service, an initiative from the DESIS Lab at Parsons the New School for Design that teaches design skills to civil servants.

Dave is also a civil servant himself, part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing Recovery team helping New Yorkers rebuild their neighbourhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

In this article, Dave argues that civil servants need to be given the skills and the opportunity to use their insights to design better public services.

Civic Service

At Civic Service we are driven by the critical need to challenge how government designs and delivers public services.

In New York City, local government provides everything from medical care to public safety, housing to financial education, job training to family services. The civil servants behind these public services collectively have centuries of operational knowledge and insights that could be used to significantly improve the experience of their customers.

Yet government often suffers by not engaging the civil servants who help deliver these services in the policymaking process.

We founded Civic Service because we believe that the design of better government services has to start with the knowledge, insights and passion of civil servants.

We want to give civil servants the ability to assess problems, identify opportunities, test out new ideas and then make tangible changes for the communities they serve.

We believe that service design provides the necessary framework and skill-sets that will enable civil servants to improve existing services and create new ones.

How are we making this happen?

We took a grassroots, word-of-mouth approach in building out our programme and community. Although we started with a group of just 12 civil servants, today we have a community of hundreds.

However, the past 18 months have not been straight-forward. Civic Service exists in a grey area: we are civil servants working across agency boundaries to deliver better government, but without any kind of official endorsement. Our work is not sanctioned – but neither is it frowned upon.

We work incrementally, taking great care to serve the needs and interests of individual civil servants in our community. We also celebrate the small wins, whether that’s a successful discussion on organizational culture or workshop for a government office.

We’ve recently developed programmes that can be applied at an office, agency, or government-wide level.

These programmes include:

The Forum

Discussions with social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of government, design and service innovation.

The Workshop

Skills training in creative and collaborative problem-solving, using real public services as case studies.

The Network

Sharing of knowledge and successful projects between government agencies, cities and countries.

Civic Service workshop

What can we achieve?

Our end goal is to create system-wide change in the way government operates, allowing civil servants to be more responsive to community needs.

Rather than push for the use of design on specific projects, or set up dedicated Innovation Labs, we want to build a network of civil servants with the necessary skills and mindset to transform public services across all areas of government. We want to see service innovation become normal practice, not a radical step.

Here government has a choice: we can focus on improving a few specific policies or we can empower the people who shape those policies in the first place.

We believe civil servants have the courage to challenge the way government works – but investing in them is the only way we’ll find out.

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