• Opinion
  • March 20, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

In New York City, a new model for bringing design to the public sector

Opinion: NYC's Service Design Studio can play a unique role as insider-outsiders

service design

This piece was written by Mari Nakano, Director, Service Design Studio, NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


The evidence that design reaps multiple benefits for service delivery is growing.

We believe that public services must be designed with the people that use them, and we know from experience that public servants are much more engaged and effective at their jobs when they have the tools and know-how to learn from the people we serve.

However, typically, government projects requiring design thinking, human-centred design or service design are limited to discrete scopes of work drawn up by consultants in response to a city or state-issued request for proposal (RFP) for the procurement of a service.

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These consultant-government relationships are, in short, contractual. While these projects do improve the design and delivery of public services, the short-term nature of the consultant relationships can limit the beneficial outcomes of a collaborative design process.

The limitations of such relationships become most apparent when an engagement or a contract ends. For a government agency to reap the greatest benefits of a design process, there cannot be a strict cut-off: the process must continue to grow and evolve in an iterative way.

Most notably, when a project scope ends, it’s important to ask: What does the handoff between the design team and the city team look like? How do public sector teams not versed in design methods continue the work of understanding and improving the programs they deliver via ongoing feedback?

This new model embraces deep partnerships and capacity-building activities

In 2017, the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity), with the support of Citi Community Development, launched the Service Design Studio to embed a different model for bringing design into the public sector.

This new model embraces deep partnerships and capacity-building activities to not only create better services and programs for residents, but also to teach city employees how to continue and sustain this design methodology throughout their ongoing work and well beyond the scope of any single project.

The Service Design Studio’s strategic placement within NYC Opportunity also allows the design team to draw from the rigorous, evidence-based research expertise conducted by the office’s Programs & Evaluation team. This team grounds and informs all of our projects, with deep research into precedents and programs, and builds performance monitoring metrics for each initiative.

Combining insights developed through the service design process with relevant evidence ensures that public programs are evidence-based, informed by stakeholder input, and designed to meet the needs of individual users.

Our position in a Mayor’s Office allows us to work seamlessly with the 100+ city agencies that deliver essential social services in order to ensure the customer experience of using these benefits is accessible, enjoyable and rooted in our Service Design Principles.

This unique vantage point allows us to play the role of insider-outsiders; as government insiders, we are intimately knowledgeable about the inner workings of city government. Agency employees are therefore able to share challenges and political hurdles. As outsiders to the individual teams we engage with, we can see the challenges we work on from a 30,000-foot perspective and make neutral observations and recommendations.

Our work is rooted in training city employees to do design work themselves

Our work is rooted in training city employees to do design work themselves, rather than just doing it for them. We’ve created several ways for our team to coach public servants on the fundamentals of service design. These offerings are designed to support the important work city employees are already doing to improve their operations or services.

We’re also actively listening to the design champions that utilise these services within other agencies and improving our own operations from their feedback.

In addition to these capacity-building activities, we’ve created Designing for Opportunity, a unique project model that brings our team into deep partnerships with city agencies to enhance existing services or design new ones using our Tools + Tactics, a service design methodology that we tailored specifically for the public sector.

For our first Designing for Opportunity partnership, we held an open call, inviting any agency to apply to work with us, and selected the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) as our inaugural partner. Designing for Opportunity: Pathways to Prevention launched in March 2018 and will wrap this spring.

Designing for Opportunity: Pathways to Prevention won’t culminate in a dry, standard-issue government report. Instead, we’re working to package the prototypes we’re testing so that they can be scaled up effectively throughout the children’s services agency, alongside metrics to test for their long-term impact. Together, we’re co-designing mechanisms to ensure ACS continues to iterate on the materials developed on this project.

We’ve grown into expert bureaucracy hackers and risk deflectors

We’ve grown together as a team into expert bureaucracy hackers and risk deflectors, skilled at rapidly prototyping abstract concepts and policy improvements with users and frontline staff. We are eager to share lessons learned with other teams tackling similar challenges.

Our future vision is not to grow into a gigantic Studio with resources to serve the 300,000 employees of the City of New York, but rather to influence agencies to build design as a core competency of their own staff. If you’re inspired to start that journey with your team, sign up for an Office Hour with us to talk about how to get started! — Mari Nakano

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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