Creating Transparency for Equitable Government
Transparency is key to a fair and equitable government. That’s the mandate for San Francisco’s Ethics Commission, formed in 1993 to serve the public, city employees, officials, and candidates for public office, by educating and enforcing campaign finance, lobbying, conflicts of interests, and governmental ethics laws. It’s a hub for all kinds of critical services — filing financial disclosures, accessing public records, investigating and adjudicating complaints, and helping shape public policy by developing local political reform laws.
Last year, I began my fellowship at the Ethics Commission with a clear objective: to improve the online presence of ethics-related compliance and disclosure information ultimately to help increase public engagement and to strengthen accountability in local government through improved legal compliance. The Commission holds a large, broad, and varied swath of information, including compliance requirements and procedures, forms and instructions, pertinent laws, public disclosures, open data, policy proposals, staff reports, enforcement updates, public notices, and audit reports. For most people, these topics can be complex to interpret and navigate, so the goal was to present them in a format that’s interactive and engaging, and can help regular users quickly find the services they use most. For instance, the site should be as accessible to a campaign committee looking to file a financial statement, as to a member of the public who wants to learn about the Commission for the first time. Getting a thorough understanding of the types of end-users was going to be instrumental in providing them relevant and useful information in a user-friendly manner that caters to their unique needs.
Based on the day-to-day interactions with the public, the agency over time had developed a good knowledge base of common-use cases, especially of those who actively engage with the Commission’s programs and initiatives. The services and communications on the site need to be easily understandable and accessible to a broad range of people with diverse needs, digital skills, and familiarity with the subject matter.
My biggest challenge at the outset — to understand exactly what those end-users need — was going to be the hardest part, because there were not many avenues available to directly gather information from end-users about their experiences with the Commission.
I used several approaches to address this gap. As a first step, I focused on surveying internal stakeholders to capture the institutional knowledge about online and offline user requests and interactions, and the processes that supported those activities. One-on-one and group discussions with staff members helped identify and prioritize critical use cases of the services offered by the agency.
Understanding the importance of human-centered design, I also conducted interviews and user-testing sessions with some of the end-users to get their feedback about specific aspects of the content design, user interfaces, and service delivery. These sessions helped clarify users’ expectations, verify key assumptions, and narrow down the areas of improvements. For example, I learned that the online information pertaining to financial disclosure requirements was not structured in a way that was easy for the filers to understand. Users also shared that they were expecting to see specific keywords and language on the site to direct them to the information they were looking for. This type of feedback was valuable to help pinpoint the problem areas, which I addressed iteratively to improve the overall user experience.
I then took it one step further to gather feedback at a broader scale. I created online surveys that were designed to capture the users’ comments regarding their experiences, challenges, and suggestions. This exercise surfaced up the programmatic changes that needed to be incorporated into the agency’s day-to-day operations and also helped identify specific enhancements for the web content and design. To continue gathering feedback from users on an ongoing basis and capture their emerging needs, I worked with the agency’s staff to design an online feedback form that we embedded on every page on the website. This facilitated direct and real-time communication with the support team, which enabled the team to be agile and responsive to users’ immediate needs.
Reaching Out To The Underserved
Now that I had a foundational understanding of the active users, I wanted to focus on gathering feedback from those who used the agency’s services less often, and potential users who were unfamiliar with the agency. To that end, I collaborated with the agency’s staff and the city’s Public Voice program team to conduct resident user-testing sessions. The program invited city residents to participate in testing the agency’s website on desktop and mobile platforms.
This model is a great way to incorporate a feedback loop in a city’s service design process to gather input from residents, before the launch of a new service. These testing sessions provided valuable insights about our website including feedback on the layout, content, usability, and site features, and helped surface unmet needs. One of the key benefits of these sessions was that they helped us understand the user experiences of new visitors, which were quite different from those of our active users. We identified incremental changes that could significantly transform the experience of a new user, covering aspects such as choice of words, placement of content, information gaps, and intuitive navigation.
My user research also included understanding the experiences of differently-abled individuals, to better serve their needs. Along with the agency’s staff, I consulted with accessibility subject matter experts to identify design changes that made it easier for differently-abled users to access the content, for example, correctly tagging web elements to help blind individuals better navigate the site through screen readers. There are well-established best practices that can be incorporated into a web design to ensure that city services can reach all types of users.
Overall, these initiatives provided the agency a tried and tested framework of techniques that can help the Commission more closely engage with the public, as well as a user-focused mindset to design content and services that directly support the users’ needs.
What I Learned
Over the course of the year, working on this project exposed me to the specific needs, challenges, and constraints that are unique to the public sector. These are some of the insights I learned about getting traction in local government:
Leverage the wealth of knowledge of internal experts.
As much as it is important to understand the end-user experience, it is also crucial to understand the experiences of those delivering the services. Staff members who interface with users, online or offline, can help clarify key assumptions and goals behind a service implementation. They can also help us learn more about the users and about the solutions that have already been tried in the organization.
Experiment ideas using incremental changes.
City departments are often extremely tight on resources so big ideas are not easy to implement due to budget, timeline, or operational constraints. But there’s always a way to break down the scope of an idea into manageable and realistic pieces that can be tested iteratively with much fewer resources. This can help us validate specific aspects of the solution relatively quickly and get us one step closer to the desired end state.
Collaborate with others who are solving the same problems.
Although city departments may be different functionally, many have the same goals, like providing quality service to residents, service accessibility, public disclosure, complying with city laws, and addressing resource constraints. The act of intentionally reaching out to other departments to explore different solutions can greatly expedite the problem-solving process.
Implement feedback loops.
User-focused design cannot be approached as a onetime activity. It needs to be integrated into all aspects of operations on a day-to-day basis. Identifying and implementing user feedback mechanisms, be it online or offline, are extremely vital to continually engage the users and flexibly adapt to their evolving needs.
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