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Resilient Oakland Launches Civic Design Lab to Embed Systems Thinking & Agile Government

By Kiran Jain, Chief Resilience Officer, Deputy City Administrator, City of Oakland

Kiran Jain, Chief Resilience Officer, Deputy City Administrator, City of Oakland

Cities around the world are turning to best practices from the technology sector to help address changing needs. “Innovation labs” or “incubators,” or simply a collaborative space for City and community members to focus on tough problems have been launched in over a hundred cities, yielding impressive results.

Through a public-private partnership with Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities program, we recently launched the Civic Design Lab (CDL), a dedicated program that brings together people, process & policy to reimagine and redesign local government. CDL applies user centered design and systems thinking to public sector problems, starting with the question: “who are we designing this policy or service for?” The team, led by Kiran Jain (CRO), Jose Corona (Mayor’s Director of Strategic Partnerships & Equity), and Ethan Guy, (Deputy CRO), is taking a project-based approach to city problem-solving.

"By taking a systems-based, design thinking approach, CDL can upend the current siloed approach towards urban governance by integrating different departments to support big picture city management"

By deploying a systems-based, design thinking methodology, CDL can upend the current siloed approach towards urban governance by integrating different departments to support big picture city management. One obvious way is through the flow of data from one department to another or one jurisdiction to another, e.g. building & fire, housing & human services, public health & law enforcement, the list goes on.

For cities and the constituents they serve, there are multiple benefits in delivering better, more integrated municipal services: improved service delivery for all constituents (which also increases trust in government), advanced analytics for city management to understand evolving situations in real-time, and informed decision-making to ensure city resources are allocated efficiently.

As residents and businesses expect a more open, functional and responsive government, how can we rethink old paradigms in breaking down these traditional silos. How do cities increase access to services while building a more nimble and efficient government?

One recent CDL project focused on accessing affordable housing. Our mandate was to design a new digital service for its rent control program, which protects thousands of residents from unlawful rent increases or diminished services. Approximately 70 percent of Oakland’s estimated 100,000 rental units are currently covered under the City’s rent control program. The City’s rent control program is the main mechanism for resolving disputes between property owners and renters.

Through CDL, we took an agile, user first approach. The City brought together tenants, property owners, and City staff as a way to start a collaborative conversation between renters, owners and City officials. The goal was to get people talking to each other whose goals have previously not aligned, and to give the City a chance to listen and reveal additional opportunity areas for the City to improve its rent control service, which directly informed the look and feel of the new website and online petitioning system.

We decided to use a lightweight content management system, Word Press, given that it’s free to install and deploy and in the interest of time – we had 5 months to get this project from start to finish. We also wanted a design that would allow us to migrate our content over to any new CMS our new CIO, Andrew “Pete” Peterson, may deploy.

By listening to Oaklanders, the City learned four key themes to incorporate into its design:

• Universal access is critical
• Website also needs to be a knowledge portal
• Process transparency is paramount
• Safety & security builds trust in the system

Another design principle was building within the City’s existing technology stack our IT department could support. Unlike previous efforts, we did not want an application that could not be supported or improved upon by our own staff. So we used the City’s AWS cloud computing platform and other existing applications to ensure we could sustain our application beyond our first product release. And through this process, we learned that a siloed government is reflected in its siloed technology stack. If we can solve the latter issue, we can drastically improve government service delivery.

The new fillable, smart and secure online petitioning system is one of several improvements the City of Oakland has made to the new rent control website to more efficiently implement changes in regulations that shifted the responsibility for petitioning non-standard rent increases from tenants to property owners, while also making it simpler for tenants with complaints about any potentially unjustified rent increases to file a petition for review. To stay true to our user first approach, CDL also engaged OpenOakland’s Civic User Testing Group in this process before launching our product. Through this process, we learned about additional product improvements we could make before launching the new website and application.

To better help property owners and tenants navigate the new regulations and processes, the improved website also highlights important information about renters and property owners’ rights and responsibilities, improves access to housing services, and makes updates and announcements more readily available. Through content design, we brought the reading level of the City’s old website from a post-graduate reading level to an 8th grade reading level for the new website.

Through user interviews, we also crafted this mission statement to underscore that the point of this service is not to be adversarial, but is rooted in community: “We believe community begins with where you live, and we’re committed to fostering healthy relationships between property owners and tenants. We do not provide legal advice but can help put you in contact with organizations that can.”

With the launch of a new website and online petitioning system, the City is moving into the next phase its redesign work. The City is continuing to look at new functionality for this system and is seeking feedback for ways in which we can improve the system. For example, users wanted to be able to access recordings of Rent Board meetings online, which we rolled out as a new feature as well. Through CDL, we can better understand the experiences of a myriad of stakeholders while identifying the stumbling blocks they encounter when interacting with government services. By delivering on our promise of agile government, we are able to create more effective services with our limited budgeting dollars. This increases trust and transparency in city government thereby building our own institutional resilience.

This project is just one example of the value of CDL, but gives a solid overview of how we are implementing other actions from the Resilient Oakland Playbook, such as promoting safe and healthy neighborhoods, increasing economic security and affordable housing. Through this approach, we are shifting old paradigms and adopting new, agile ways of doing the business of government to better serve all Oaklanders.

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