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Reflecting and Looking Forward: Public Impact Design

Our Inaugural Public Impact Design training — San Francisco, April 2017

What is the impact you’re trying to make?
What is one way you’re trying to make that impact?
In trying to make impact, what’s currently not working?

These prompts greet participants of CivicMakers’ Public Impact Design trainings. Upon registering, attendees are asked to think about the impact they’re trying to make through a project, program or task within the context of their public sector work. The answer to the last prompt seeds each participant’s design challenge for the half-day training, where they are led through the human-centered design process step-by-step, a methodology that’s been proved to help engender creative, collaborative problem-solving across sectors. We’ve taken this approach and contextualized it for public impact.

The Beginning

In April 2017, CivicMakers launched our Public Impact Design (PID) trainings — a new opportunity for public practitioners to exercise their creative problem-solving skills. The development of PID was informed by our consulting work with government agencies and nonprofits. You can read about the integrated components of PID and our rationale/hypothesis here.

Since then, we’ve had the privilege of training nearly 100 civic innovators and public sector practitioners in this methodology — 5 trainings in 4 cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento).

Was it risky for us to orient public practitioners to the design process through the lens of their own challenges? Yes.

As we were developing this training, we got questions from our public sector partners and other design thinking experts along the lines of:

“What if it’s a challenge you can’t design for?”
“How am I supposed to build a prototype for something like community engagement?”
“Do we really need to spend so much time on arts & crafts?”

Applying the design process to a challenge involves building a prototype. Participants in any design thinking or human-centered design training typically build these prototypes as “low-fidelity,” meaning they create something tangible that a user (or client, customer, etc.) can interact with, that they can experience. In this context, it often means using art supplies to create a physical representation of a product, service, process or even an idea, which is different from how it’s usually applied in the private sector. For an analyst or finance manager, this often takes a willingness to be uncomfortable, as it is not a regular occurrence that individuals within these roles are given tools to be creative in this way.

Our hypothesis, however, included the following assumptions:

  1. Everyone can build something that represents a solution to a problem.
  2. There’s inherent value in getting people in a room together to talk about their challenges with people who work in similar contexts.
  3. These trainings are less about mastering a process and more about getting participants in touch with their own unique creative process, listening empathically to their colleagues and customers, and understanding systemic constraints.
Sketching prototypes — San Francisco, April 2017

What We’ve Learned

  • We always say at the end of each training that our trainings themselves are prototypes. As such, we request that participants provide feedback on our prototypes directly afterward…this is part of our process of continuous improvement.
  • We learned that our initial 3-hour prototype was far too short, so we extended it one hour.
  • We learned that people want to stay connected, and we’ll be experimenting with how to facilitate that in the coming year.
  • We learned that there’s a hunger to integrate other tangible applications of PID, to areas like program evaluation, strategic planning and community engagement, and we’re rolling out new modules in response.
  • We learned that real-life examples are critical to the adoption of this process.
  • We learned that, indeed, everyone can build a creative solution!

And, in their own words, here’s what participants have said about what they found most valuable during their PID experience:

“Giving people the opportunity to step out of their own problems and solution-build for others” — Information Systems Analyst, California Department of Public Health

“Great mix of learning systems/design thinking ideas and putting them into practice” — Logistics Manager, Alameda County

“It was so awesome to be able to have the tools to listen to a problem and systematically develop solutions. Also, I am a hands-on learner, so the project-based learning was very helpful.” — Content Strategist, Office of Innovation

“Meeting people who work in government and have interesting and similar social/political challenges in their own problems” — Product Manager, Nonprofit focused on Data Science

Building prototypes — San Francisco, April 2017

What’s Next

Since this initial rollout of PID as a training, we’ve understood that the combination of these processes and frameworks actually creates the theoretical underpinnings of our own work. WHAT does that mean?! That we’re actually learning from our work?! Yes, and it’s pretty cool — we highly recommend it. Read more about what Public Impact Design means to us and how it shows up in our work.

And we want to hear from you what might helpful for incorporating into your work! For example, in our end of year survey, one respondent mentioned the value of incorporating “play” into a hands-on training. While we know working toward public impact is serious business, we try to infuse some levity into the ways in which we collectively tackle complex problems. How might this concept play out in your work?

In 2018, we’ll be experimenting with additional formats, including full-day trainings, online delivery, and department-specific trainings. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on our offerings, including additional modules (community engagement, program evaluation, and strategic planning).

Our first training of 2018, Intro to PID, will be Friday, February 23 from 8:30a-12:30p at Impact Hub San Francisco. Get in touch with us if you’d like to learn more. I guarantee we’ll be eager to learn from you too.

Thanks to Cristelle Blackford and Lawrence Grodeska.