My almost two months at Greenwich
(ok, this does not fit as a week note, but I am trying to put this into practice)
While I am writing this, I am finishing my 7th week at the Royal Borough of Greenwich as the first service designer working in the new Product team. Everything is new for me: a new culture, a new country, a new language, a new institution, new colleagues, new ways of working (hybrid). Everything very far away from my comfort zone. Of course, it is a huge challenge since I am feeling the self-pressure and responsibility of delivering valuable things to contribute to the process of building better experiences for our residents, and also for our staff members that have to deal with the “invisible” back-office tasks. On top of that, I am writing my thesis to finish my MPA in the IIPP at UCL, which also poses other challenges that have made me reflect on many things that I will try to describe and synthesize here. By the way, this is also the first time that I write and publish something in English (beyond my essays).
Empathy building (in another language)
To understand problems, needs, processes, you have to pay attention to many things like feelings, emotions, and expressions behind words, and doing this in another language has forced me to listen more and carefully, and speak too little. I arrived in London 2 years ago with basic English that I learned at school in Chile. My main goal was to speak fluently but now I realise that listening is one of the most important and powerful skills to empathise and, as designers, we basically rely on this skill. This has made me think about my previous experience working in my country in my own language. I was holding a power that I wasn’t aware of and I never valued: the power of listening in service design. This has allowed me to reflect on what is important in the process of building empathy to actually discover what needs and problems are.
I have spent most of the time talking with people from different teams, listening to phone calls from our residents, and mapping out what I have discovered. I have met amazing people inside the institution, and I can see the enormous efforts and commitment behind the scenes to deliver a service that most of it is manually and paper-based. I could empathise with staff members that have to deal with difficult queries from vulnerable residents, some of them barely speak English, and how they sorted out to help them and provide valuable support. I talked with my colleague Eleanor about the English thing, and she said something really important: how much power brings you being a native English speaker? This is also crucial since London is particularly a city with diverse communities so we need to put this on the table to be truly empathetic and inclusive as a public service provider. I do believe that by using plain English and simple processes for citizens and staff members, avoiding asking non-needed evidence, and trusting people, we can build good services based on empathy.
Simply put, listening carefully and paying attention to all these details, is a key factor to create public value for our community.
Understanding the leverage points to make change happens
During this period of time working at Greenwich, I have carried a discovery and mapping process for our council tax services to understand the as-is journey and all the processes and teams behind the scenes. We have identified many opportunities for improvement. Lingjing, the Head of the Product team, and I were devoted to breaking down the problems and dreaming about possible futures for council tax services. We imagined how we can provide better experiences for both, residents and staff members, and now we are about to prioritise what we actually can do in the following weeks to improve and alleviate some of the pain points. This has reminded me of an article that I’ve read a few months ago written by Donella Meadows about leverage points. In a system, any point that you touch can produce an effect in another part of the system. We need to be aware of the consequences as they can be positive for the service, but also very negative in the different layers of it. Systems are not just the service that you are part of it, are also the outcomes and how they can affect communities and the way they are flourishing. Thus, this is something that should be carefully thought about when you prioritise, prototype, test, and deliver a change into the system. Perhaps a simple online service to apply for tax support can prevent people from losing their homes in the future.
This is fundamentally important to creating public value but also to build trust within your own organisation. Even more, if you are part of a new digital team in the local government. The expectations might be higher than ever.
Into the “wild” practice from the “enlightened” theory
Most of my professional career has been doing ‘practical work’. I decided to study for my master’s degree after six years working in central government in Chile in addition to four years in the private sector. During my studies, I understood from theoretical perspectives why is so difficult to make change happens inside public institutions. Basically, the state has been dismantled by capitalism and the market agenda, reducing its capabilities and relying on private companies. On top of that, many practices in public administration have been introduced to mimicry the industrialised private sector: economic incentives, top-down decision making, division of labour, etc., the opposite thing to agile environments and user-centred design approaches. Hilary Cottam, in her book Radical Help, highlighted that these practices cannot properly solve the social challenges of the 21st century. In the same vein, Mariana Mazzucato has done an amazing job bringing back again the discussion about the importance of the public sector in society and how it is a key actor to enhance public value. These are things fundamentally important in local government, where services can radically change our resident’s lives.
Here arise the following questions: how can we really change public services? How can we organise ourselves to transform our institutional practices to deliver better services? How can we strengthen the public sector capabilities to quickly respond to and anticipate our resident’s needs? When you are into the “wild practice” these things seem to be blurry. These are no simple tasks, and they need time but also people’s awareness about the need for change. This is one of the huge challenges in the public sector, and of course, it causes frustrations and scares new talents to contribute to this process. I saw many designers giving up because red tape is so hard to navigate. My reflection here is that as individuals perhaps we cannot change from overnight all public administration practices that have been there for decades, but being aware of these rooted problems, as a bunch of people we can make change happens. We need to resist, persevere, keep trying, and more importantly: through building teams and communities in the same battle, we can join forces to navigate into the wild practice in the public sector.
What I did this week
- I have been preparing a presentation for my first show and tell next week, exactly in my 8th week at Greenwich.
- I spent time with back-office team members to understand a little bit more about their problems and needs.
- I met our new team member, Constance, our first UX researcher. Can’t wait to work with her! We are growing really fast as a team and it is fascinating to see this from the beginning.
- I presented our Council tax discovery in a digital board meeting, in a 10-min show and tell. It was right after a fire evacuation in the Woolwich centre building, to put little extra nerves.
- I baked a classic Latin American 3-milk cake for my colleagues. I think they loved it!
What I am reading
- I am enjoying “good services”, from Lou Downe.
- Leading public design, from Christian Bason.
- And I want to start “The utopia of rules on technology, stupidity and the secrets joys of bureaucracy” from David Graeber. Please enjoy the covering page!
What I am celebrating
In Chile, we are about to write a new constitution with people democratically elected just for this matter. This is the first time that we write a constitution in democracy, and it is the first time worldwide that half of the members are women, and it is the first time in our history that indigenous people are included as well in the process.
On Sunday, 4th of July was the first official meeting as a kick-off and a powerful Mapuche woman, Elisa Loncon, was chosen to preside the constitutional convention. She is part of our indigenous people that for hundreds of years have been humiliated and exploited. She did an inspiring speech about how we are going to transform our country. She highlighted that this process will be driven by collaboration, inclusion and participation where women, indigenous inhabitants, sexual diversity and children will be heard. She also said that we will aim to protect and respect our nature, water and environment. This is something so important for our country and its people. A glimpse of hope we feel with her words. A new country is coming.
You can watch her discourse here