September 08, 2015

Four Ways Design Thinking Can Transform e-Government


When you reflect on the last time you interacted with a public institution, it likely tested your patience. If that experience was digital, it may have been buggy, cobwebbed with bureaucratic language, and fixated on pushing you back into the analog world with a form to print out. If we look closer at the ways government services miss the mark, we see an exciting design opportunity. We’re lucky to live this opportunity every day at WaterSmart, supporting water utilities with world-class digital tools, while building on the best practices documented by civic technology leaders such as the UK’s Digital Service, US Digital Service, and Code for America.

  1. Deliver Digital Services Instead of Websites

When public institutions try to “go digital”, that often means carving out a presence on the Web and calling it a day. While this checks a box, it doesn’t get citizens any closer to resolving their needs. For example, a PDF of restaurant health scores on the city inspector’s website is not as salient or helpful as it would be if exposed by a Yelp search for a restaurant.

A true service means providing the capability to complete the desired action end-to-end. Boston’s Citizen Connect app is a great example of a tool in this next phase of evolution. Instead of submitting complaints to a call center, users create their own tickets by snapping a picture, and then track how their issue is resolved. Transparent and speedy handoff of tasks from citizens to public works employees engenders trust in the system overall.

Boston was successful with adoption of their tool because it targeted a real, existing behavior. Data and technology alone, without a defined user need, is a recipe for well-meaning individuals to spin their wheels. Instead, if we start by building empathy with real citizens, we can prioritize time and funding for solutions that help them meet their goals.

  1. Institutionalize Iteration

Design processes prioritize a period of ideation before a pursuing a solution. This runs counter to typical government software procurement processes that narrowly define specifications before a vendor is even selected which favors the type of legacy systems that built the original This purchasing approach also needlessly silos technology and data within municipal boundaries. With design thinking in mind, we can stop reinventing the wheel and make forward-looking iteration part of the deliverable.


SaaS vendors are well suited to meet this challenge because the solutions are not static. We can continuously push added value, as user feedback, feature requests or new ideas emerge. When something works well, we can immediately deploy it across our subscriber base, reaching Californian urban centers just as easily as East Coast suburbs or small-town Idaho. And when something doesn’t work quite right, it’s not a dead end. We can course correct, test and release Version 2.0, without the rigmarole of a new RFP. “This will not happen overnight. It requires governments being more open to iterative learning and a willingness to ‘fail forward.’ In turn, the public must become more lenient with experimentation as government tries to act boldly.”

Water in particular is accustomed to a slow pace of iteration. Our 100-year-old delivery infrastructure is just now being turned over. For such an essential resource, reliability trumps risk. But combined with the fragmentation of small municipal districts, it means water utilities are not naturally equipped with enough staff to build their own cutting-edge tools ripe for the Internet of Things. Nor should they be. In the vein of the “government as a platform” concept popularized by Tim O’Reilley, if utilities shift focus to acting as stewards of data, they can outsource research and development of technology to a wider shared network moving at the speed of Silicon Valley.

  1. Prioritize Outcomes Over Activities

“A smart city uses evidence to solve problems.” The true promise of Big Data has never been to hoard 1’s and 0’s, but instead to expose connections that enable predictive analytics and suggest actionable conclusions. This dovetails with design processes that begin with defining testable outcomes, and end with testing those outcomes. Those results then become the basis for evidence-based decisions, like redeploying police, snowplows or public assistance. Ideally, to close the feedback loop, those decisions and underlying data are communicated to the public as transparently as possible.

While that’s all easy to say, it comes with a few strong caveats:

  1. This process requires timely metrics (from sensors and smart meters) and nimble analytics to be effective.
  2. The quality of the recommendations will only be as good as the data inputs.
  3. Public policy does not reliably offer a variable that can be optimized.

At WaterSmart there are many different metrics we could use to measure participation in our water-use efficiency programs: Home Water Reports delivered, portal registrations, page clicks, etc. But technology is the means, not the end. The participation metric we care about most is amount of water saved, which we measure assiduously.


  1. Embrace Participation

Patrick Geddes, a 19th-century urban planner, challenged presiding paternalistic models of his time when he outlined “a new type of citizenship that will prepare a population to build its change”. Grassroots movements have come and gone, but the top-down model of governance has only recently been disrupted by the convergence of mature social networks, mobile computing, and dense urban populations. Now any citizen with the motivation and skills can build and deploy an application on top of open data portals like And non-technical individuals can have a big impact with a basic appreciation for design principles.

This shift has been used as a rallying cry for the civic tech movement. “We’re not just consumers, in that we’re not just consumers of government where we put in taxes and receive services,” says Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America. “We’re more than that, we’re citizens. And we’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship.”

From this point of view, we can move away from rules, regulations and rate increases as methods to shape outcomes. Instead, we can focus on positive ways to activate participation, and make governance a daily two-way conversation. Technology enables a variety of new interactions, like voting on participatory budgets, tweeting to 311, and sharing hyper-local news. The very act of consuming (or conserving) a common resource, like water, can become a form of citizenship. And ‘quantified-self’-style apps can help consumers track their progress.

We can build the digital government of our future, and we can build it together. Once citizens view themselves as active partners, instead of passive consumers, we can share ownership in solving big problems, like aging urban infrastructure and drought. Let’s squash our fears of letting policy-makers experiment and iterate, and hold them accountable for positive, citizen-centered outcomes. When e-Government transforms, it will no longer about the ‘e’; it will be about you and me.

Further Reading

Beyond Transparency Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation, Code for America, Brett Goldstein with Lauren Dyson

Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, by Gavin Newsom, Lisa Dickey

Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, Anthony M. Townsend 

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, Stephen Goldsmith, Susan Crawford

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