• Opinion
  • November 9, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

We built an internal design consultancy in San Francisco’s government

Opinion: Our overriding aim is to improve service delivery experiences and outcomes

This opinion piece was written by Marc K. Hébert, director of the Innovation Office within San Francisco government’s Human Services Agency. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed.

Since 2014, I’ve been lucky to co-create and lead the Innovation Office within San Francisco government’s Human Services Agency. The Agency assists those experiencing poverty, abuse, physical and cognitive impairments as well as veterans. Our four-person team functions as an internal consultancy, helping our “clients” design services and systems.

The Office’s “north star” or guiding light is to improve service delivery experiences and outcomes with the public and employees. We do so across digital and non-digital touchpoints, or parts of a service journey.

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Overarching principles guiding our work include meeting the needs of the public and employees, and understanding those needs are shaped by a historical context of privilege, power, discrimination, trauma and inequity. We strive to address these needs by clarifying who the stakeholders are, what they want to achieve, how we might achieve it and what data will indicate improvement.


Service and systems design, as we apply it, is a holistic practice that includes proven approaches. For example, we use equity-centred design, agile methods to build digital and non-digital products, user-experience research and lean process improvement.

We also draw from visual facilitation, results-based accountability (an evaluative framework), behavioural insights, anthropology and other social science research. By continuing to add to our toolbox, we’re able to evolve with the changing needs of the public and employees in our lobbies, on our phones or online.

Some of our projects involve rebuilding the Agency’s website and intranet to enable service delivery, developing a robust text messaging platform to guild the public through their service journey, reducing lobby wait times and call volume, making forms easier to complete on paper and online, nudging clients to come to appointments using SMS, and sharing service design techniques with coworkers who then lead projects to transform their programs.

These successes came with many lessons learned, and colleagues often ask about our top takeaways. Here are responses to some common questions we’ve received.

How do we prioritise work?

Develop criteria to select projects. Questions we ask include: Are we uniquely suited for this project? What’s the strategic importance or wider impact? What data do we have or need? How will success be measured or recognised? Are we wanted or invited to help?

Beware how daily urgencies can detract from achieving larger, longer-term priorities. We protect our team’s time by adapting an agile methodology known as “scrum.” We produce outputs in two-week chunks tied to strategic, 12-month outcomes linked to a multi-year plan. Future work lives in a “backlog” going out two to eight-plus weeks.

Every two weeks we share what worked and didn’t, and then plan our next two weeks based on these reflections and backlog. A daily “stand up” gathers us to share what we did yesterday, plan to accomplish today and what may be blocking our progress.

Why do units like yours close?

Internal government innovation teams may not gain traction for a number of reasons. To reduce this possibility, make quantifiable progress on strategic initiatives, meet the most pressing needs of the public and frontline employees, adequately communicate impact and start building digital services (not necessarily apps) as soon as possible.

Digital solutions that scale are not needed to start an internal service and systems design team. We focused first on improving processes in the lobby and on the phone that were public- and internal-facing, as well as form and information design, lobby wayfinding and internal and external feedback loops; all without building digital products. We then added digital and design expertise to the Agency.

How to train others?

My initial (failed) strategy was to train other staff how to do service design. We survived by moving from an education-based approach to addressing discrete problems. That is, sharing service design tools with ad hoc teams of employees to solve immediate needs.

Our sweet spot for change has been where employees and the public feel pinch-points in a service journey. Internal buy-in is there and clients really want improvement.

So, here’s what to do next

What could you do in the next two weeks? Identify a single strategic priority. Then choose a bite-sized chunk. Ideally, this would be something you have strong top cover for, as well as data to measure progress. It should be an area where frontline employees and the public are feeling pinch-points and really want change. What would it take for someone to lead the effort full-time? Yes, full-time. It’s a priority, right?

Whatever form your innovation effort takes, those involved need the power to be experimental, with mistakes learned from instead of punished. Encourage project transparency, with wide sharing of what they are doing, and why. Communicating this regularly can help build institutional and public support.

The authors of A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, encourage us to reframe constraints as “a limitation, or defining parameter; often the stimulus to find a better way of doing something.”

Our Agency’s executives allow us to be inspired by the challenge to make constraints beautiful. After all, we consider finding “a better way of doing something” the heart of what we do, and it’s what takes “innovation” beyond hype to measurably helping our clients and colleagues. — Marc K. Hébert

Note: This opinion piece was adapted from the December 2018 edition of Policy & Practice: the magazine of the American Public Human Services Association.

(Picture credit:Unsplash/Chris Leipelt)


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