It is challenging to innovate from within a bureaucracy. So when I saw a report about the work that the US CFPB is doing to bring better design, technology and culture to government service delivery, I was intrigued.
For designers like [Audrey] Chen, the CFPB’s approach isn’t just about making the government’s work more tech-savvy or aesthetically pleasing: Horrible design leads to a bad user experience...
Washington Post - Who leaves Comedy Central to work for the government? - September 7, 2012
I contacted the US Embassy and they very graciously worked to arrange a presentation by Audrey Chen.
There have been more recent articles as well.
the change was tiny, a typo fix. Iceeey suggested the agency change the line “Daily rountrip cost” to “Daily roundtrip cost.” But this small request was a very big deal.
For the first time, the Consumer Protection Bureau was accepting a direct change to one of its internal documents not from someone inside the agency but from an average citizen somewhere across the country. The document had been published on the software code collaboration website GitHub, with the express idea that it could be hacked, commented on, and improved in public just like open source software.
Wired - How GitHub Helps You Hack the Government - January 9, 2013
This is an additional point of connection between the Canadian gov and the US CFPB, as Canada has put its Web Experience Toolkit on GitHub.
I later found this article from O'Reilly Radar as well
As the first federal “start-up agency” in a generation, some of those needs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are even more pressing. On the other hand, the opportunity for the agency to be smarter, leaner and “open from the beginning” is also immense.
Progress establishing the agency’s infrastructure and culture over the first 16 months has been promising, save for larger context of getting a director at the helm. Enabling open government by design isn’t just a catchphrase at the CFPB. There has been a bold vision behind the CFPB from the outset, where a 21st century regulator would leverage new technologies to find problems in the economy before the next great financial crisis escalates.
O'Reilly Radar - Open source is interoperable with smarter government at the CFPB - April 10, 2012 - by Alex Howard (@digiphile)
Audrey Chen is the Creative Director, Technology & Innovation, at the CFPB.
There was a short slide presentation followed by discussion. In the introduction, Audrey Chen emphasized the nature of the CFPB as a 21st century organisation, using design and technology to empower consumers.
She made the connection between design's user-centred nature and modern technology's agile development approach - with the two together you can work quickly to deliver designs that meet user needs.
She talked about the rapid growth of the CFPB, from 300 to over 1000 employees, describing it as the explosive growth characteristic of a startup, and bringing concepts that have been useful for startups:
- do more with less
She noted that even with a large budget in the context of the startup space, the CFPB has a small budget relative to the banks that it regulates. Thus the importance of maximising its resources, and adjusting to changes quickly.
She talked about innovative approaches for recruiting the necessary creative and design-oriented staff for the organisation, including embedding a recruitment ad in the page source for the website ("If you're viewing this, you should probably come work on our Technology & Innovation team.")
In order to connect all the new employees together, particularly in an environment where 1/3 of them are working remotely, there is a cfpb.local intranet site, enabling self-organisation and discovery of expertise, using e.g. tagging of employee profiles (anyone can add a tag to a profile). The idea being that this was a flexible, crowdsourced way of building up knowledge about who is in the organisation and the skills that they bring.
The Importance of Design
Design was part of the core message that she presented, a natural fit with her core role as Creative Director at the CFPB. She showed their design principles:
- public service, public trust
- give the user control
- aesthetic integrity
- design with data
- inclusion and accessibility
- coherent end-to-end user experience
Fundamentally, she said, "design expresses your value system".
She discussed the approach they took to create the Know Before You Owe service. A key: you can see everything about how they did it online - every design they tried, every consultation they did. This is not just about sharing, it's about building the public trust in the organisation through transparency. "Radically transparent at every step" is how she described it.
She also talked about CFPB finding its strengths - data sets that are unique to CFPB, or the ability of CFPB to create a compelling online experience - and partnering with other agencies when it makes sense for them to take the lead (e.g. the Department of Education for student loan information in general, the CFPB for a well-designed Paying for College site)
* I asked a question about how they have arranged their physical space to support collaboration and information sharing between all the new and diverse employees.
She said that they use an open space "bullpen" design, with small groups that are working on the same thing ("functional teams") all in one open shared space. A difficult adjustment for many of the employees, but it was tested on a small scale and they could demonstrate that those teams were more productive.
She said that 1/3 of the agency is remote, in particular many of the creative people they hired were based in major US cities and didn't want to move to DC. They deal with this by using video conferencing and screen sharing.
* I asked about the online tools
She said that the intranet is primarily wiki based, allowing easy changes, and that the staff directory with open tagging helps people connect.
* Kent Aitken asked about the challenge of placing such a high level of trust in employees (allowing them to make changes and add tags)
She said they always err on the side of trust, but that the wiki requires login, so all changes are tracked, providing accountability.
* Mary Beth Baker asked about recruiting, hackfests and change-making in an organisation
Audrey Chen's reply was that you have to be brave - you have to make a case for what you believe in, at high levels in your organisation, using business language.
She said that CFPB had found success with a code-a-thon that was very specific, centred around a specific data set unique to CFPB.
* I asked about approaches to internal information sharing
She said they have both lunch & learns and "hootenanies", where design teams can share more generally what they're working on and what interests them.
She said they would like to do Google Time (20% time) but they have been too busy with the core of their work to make it possible.
She concluded by saying that as a small agency, in a space dominated by players that have huge financial resources, CFPB is using design to compete and technology to lower its costs.
It was an informative presentation. I wish more people had attended, I should have promoted it more widely. Thanks go out to Audrey Chen and to the organising team at the Embassy.