In 1978, Virginia Hamilton was an impoverished artist living on a boat. She went to register at the local unemployment office and, much to her surprise, ended up taking a job in the office itself. Four decades later, she has oversight for federal workforce funding in eight states and four offshore territories for the US Department of Labor.
A straight-talking free-thinker who has always taken risks she has blazed a trail for the US government towards human-centred design. By working with leading design firm IDEO, she has started an initiative to completely overhaul the way unemployment centres treat people who are in the position she was in forty years ago. But more than that: she has now initiated competitions that she believes will have a greater and more lasting impact than anything else she has done since.
Speaking from her home in San Francisco, she gave Apolitical the insights she has gathered on getting staff to actually engage with policies rather than just work around them; why recession is good for the public service; and whether human-centred design is just a series of penetrating glimpses into the obvious.
You joined government in a recession and we’ve been in one recession again recently. How has that changed what you’ve been working on?
We started seeing huge swathes of professional people with very stable work histories who were now unemployed. It was a completely new population and talking to the people running our programmes I felt that we didn’t know what we were doing, really. So I spent some discretionary money working with the design firm IDEO to immerse ourselves in the people we were serving.
What’s interesting is that when there’s a recession you actually get better people in government because you’re not competing with the private sector for talent. Right now in San Francisco for example, the unemployment rate is 4.5% and I have a very hard time finding people.
Why is that?
Well, would you rather work at Google or the US Department of Labor?
I think at Apolitical, some of us would rather work for the US Department of Labor.
I would too, but I think we’re outliers.
But can you give us a concrete example of the alterations made through human-centred design?
So typically, when unemployed people come through the door, we’ll stand up at the front of the room and do this one-size-fits-all orientation, where we’d say, We can help you write a resumé, we can do career exploration with you, we can give you tests, this suite of services.
But a person might come in and be panicked. They’re about to lose their apartment or their car, and they do not want to hear about resume writing classes, they do not want to hear about career exploration, they don’t even need a job, they need money.
And that’s very different from someone walking through the door who never really liked their job very much and is interested in changing careers.
So we are starting to completely redesign our programmes. For example, one of our centres created what they called speed-dating, so you’d come in and there’d be one person who could talk about financial literacy, one who could talk about resumes, one about using websites for a job search, and so on.
On the back of that, you created a competition for 80 teams across the US to design new solutions for the department’s work; how important do you think that is?
I believe that if we get enough people energised and excited, this work will have more of an impact than a lot of what I’ve done over the course of my whole career.
What’s the idea behind the competition?
We have a new law, and we didn’t want people to look at the old law and the new law, and implement it with the least amount of pain to their own organisation. Which is often what happens. You look at the regulations as opposed to looking at your customers.
So we invited teams participate in a free online class that IDEO teaches and then we challenged them and said, How might we put the most disadvantaged out-of-school youth in the centre of our youth programmes? How might we put employers in the centre of some of our work? We’ve just selected 11 teams to go to the White House for a celebration and a learning exchange. It’s really fantastic. My insight was that if we work with the White House in creating … just, acknowledgement, it would motivate people to actually participate in this initiative.
Otherwise, if we said, “Here’s some free training, you can innovate, you can put customers in the centre,” people would go, “That’s great, but I’ve got my job to do.” And adding the twist “you might be invited to the White House”, people said it really motivated them. People said it was the difference between them slogging through four or five hours of a class when they had all sorts of other work to do, or not.
So it’s as much about motivating people through competition as it is about what they come up with?
My theory of change is that once you’ve learned design thinking, you can’t unlearn it. And people said it really motivated them and they were excited and they loved it and it was fun. So now you’ve got 80 teams across the country who think it was worthwhile. We now have five or six states that are completely jazzed about doing human-centred-design work.
Why do you believe design thinking is so important?
I’ve struggled for many years with how to connect practice and policy in meaningful ways. And I’ve become very convinced that teaching people good process will serve them better because, you know, best practices come and go. And leaders come and go, but if people fundamentally, in their bones, understand that if they can empathise with their customers, that they can listen and design around their needs, then whatever happens, they’re going to be able to adapt.
Sounds like a liberal arts education.
Oh my God, it totally does. I’ve never thought of it that way. Critical thinking skills, problem solving…
A lot of human-centred design projects sound blindingly obvious once they’ve been completed. Is it really as easy as that to implement what is in effect a change of culture?
Well, I always start with the coalition of the willing. Like the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies where one of them says, Let’s put on a play, and the other one says, We can use my dad’s barn. And then you build it out. You build a chorus of evangelists who can go out and tell the story better than you can. That’s the case with this human-centred design project. It’s no longer Virginia’s kooky idea, and at some point it should be a whole movement of people doing this work around the country.
When my friends found out I was going to work for the federal government, some laughed so hard they fell on the floor, because I’ve never been a good bureaucrat. I’ve been able to get things done over the years, so people kind of leave me alone, but there are always people in the organisations I’ve worked in who just can’t stand me. They think my job should be taking paper from my inbox and putting it in my outbox, and they just don’t understand. But I’ve built a set of relationships with people who are forward thinkers, and I start with them.
Do you think people in government are resistant to change?
It’s always funny – it’s very difficult to get fired in government, so if that’s the case, it’s the place where it should be so easy to risk things. And yet government is always rightly characterised as very risk averse. It’s very interesting. And you know, I don’t get paid enough to not have fun at work. If you paid me millions and millions of dollars, maybe I’d go to work and not have fun, but otherwise, no.
You’ve got a great story about how you joined government, but what’s kept you there despite the difficulties?
I think being a public servant is a high calling. I just do. I think the work we do, particularly on the ground, is righteous work. People who are unemployed and need money, we give them unemployment insurance, people who dropped out of school, we get them back into class.
And what I’m interested in is not just the practice. Typically, most practitioners don’t really understand policy, and frankly they work around it most of the time, because they’ve got to get in there every day and do their best. And what I’ve always been intrigued by is how you build policy that’s informed by practice and then change things to make it easier for people to get their job done. That’s intellectually really interesting to me, and that’s kept me going over the years.
Is there any one piece of advice you’d give people wanting to progress as you have?
I always volunteered for the hardest job there was, because if I couldn’t do it, people would go, “Well, that was a really hard job”, and if I did it well, people would say, “Oh my God, it’s a miracle, she’s fantastic.”
(Picture credit:Flickr/King County Parks)