IDEO, Making Government More Innovative, Less Bureaucratic

The nimble consultancy brings design thinking to political structures in desperate need of reinvention.

The entire philosophy and method of IDEO, the product-design and innovation firm, is encapsulated in its bathrooms. First, the human-centered interface: in the San Francisco office, there are three bathrooms, but to save time or the awkwardness of lingering outside, each has a lamp above the door resembling a taillight. If it’s glowing green, the bathroom’s unoccupied. Second, collaborative brainstorming: painted across one bathroom’s white walls is a strip of black chalkboard paint for comments, ideas, projects. At the time of my visit, it had been set up as a vote counter for staff to pick and nominate ideas for summer classes, presumably organized during lunch hours. Topics included “cooking at work” (16 votes), “finance” (8 votes), and “lovemaking” (7 votes). Third, its “fail early” mantra, usually applied to prototyping: above the toilet was a circuslike poster depicting a blindfolded, mustachioed man standing back as a zebra leaped out of a top hat. Advertising the all-IDEO “world talent show,” at which staff demonstrate to each other their yodeling, break-dancing, or nose-whistling abilities, the poster bears the title, in huge block letters, “Permission to Fail.”

One wonders, then, what the stream of civil servants who have arrived at IDEO’s offices over the last two years must make of its approach to problem solving, as culturally removed from Washington, D.C., as lovemaking is from Microsoft PowerPoint. Is IDEO seen as an eccentric relative? An exotic vacation? Or something with potentially more impact? Four different government entities have awarded contracts to IDEO in the past two years: the Social Security Administration has asked the firm to help figure out how to get more people applying for retirement benefits online. The General Services Administration (GSA) has asked it to look into ways to use smart-building dashboards to drive people to use less energy. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set up by an act of Congress in response to the financial crisis, is talking to IDEO about shaping its services to meet public needs. And the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has asked the firm to do short-term research into attracting and recruiting top people to government positions and, subsequently, retaining them. For executives from these offices, the writing on the bathroom walls must sound giddily liberating, even irresponsible.

Although IDEO has worked in the public sector before, this new wave of contracts is apparently tied to the current administration’s efforts to make government more innovative and less bureaucratic. Shortly after President Obama took office in 2009, he hired John Berry as director of the OPM, with a mission to make working for the government cool again, bringing young, tech-savvy people into the aging federal workforce. In August of that year, Berry picked three private companies to visit in California: Google, Facebook, and IDEO. “He was looking for good ideas, such as how do successful firms design successful spaces to get the most of their people,” says Matthew Collier, senior adviser to the director. IDEO was subsequently contracted to look at the recruitment problem and organized a one-day workshop, culminating in some short video and some recommendations. “The value of that engagement went far beyond the deliverables,” Collier says of the project’s impact at his organization. “The real value has been a shift in thinking.” Compared with a traditional polling firm, he adds, IDEO’s research method was “unscientific” but “a really good way to extract deep insights.”

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The idea that IDEO’s method is considered unscientific indicates something about its sudden and perhaps unexpected popularity in Washington. Amid pressure to reduce the cost and size of government, senior officials are looking to the private sector for guidance on how to do more with less. At the same time, the current administration’s bid to increase oversight of federal contractors suggests it is looking for alternatives to the methods of the ubiquitous Beltway Bandits—the contractors around Washington that secure a lion’s share of government work. IDEO’s “human-centered approach to innovation” embraces a less established method of problem solving than that of the techno-scientific cultures of the Beltway. Compared with the scientific method, design thinking is a disorderly process: designers make educated guesses, ask outside-the-box questions, and form hypotheses based on the understanding that new evidence will require (even invite) a rethink.

An example is the work IDEO recently completed for the Social Security Administration. Asked to figure out how to get significantly more retirees filing online by 2015, IDEO sent its researchers and designers out to watch how people used the Social Security offices, Web site, and forms. Rather than present proposals, IDEO organized a series of giant strategy workshops with Social Security managers, ditching the standard boardroom table and PowerPoint presentations for smaller, round tables, Post-it notes, and posters. On the walls were concepts intended as a kind of litmus test for the tone of the new-look online agency, from cozy (nicknamed “library”) to functional (“subway”) to official (“statement”). With remarkable speed, the civil servants stopped sending proxies to the IDEO-led meetings, rolled their sleeves up, and got involved. Fred Dust, the boyish and hyperarticulate partner in charge of IDEO’s large-systems projects, describes the difference between initial meetings and the first workshop: “At our first meeting, everyone comes because they want to know, who the hell are these people? We’re in a room with the biggest boardroom table I’ve ever seen, but only the top-ranking people sit at the table and the junior staff sit behind them, and they all sit in their areas. By the time we got to this workshop, everyone was sitting with everyone. The dynamic shifted quite radically. We also had the problem that everyone wanted to come to the meetings.”

The collaboration ended a swift six months later with some IDEO prototypes: a brighter, bolder concept Web site with collapsible sections to control the amount of information on screen and one-page filing with bars indicating the user’s progress through the site. But more significant than these concepts, which the agency is now considering as part of an in-house redesign, was a buzz in the D.C. air about the IDEO experience. “We’ve been hearing from lots of other agencies who’ve heard about this engagement,” Frank Baitman, Social Security’s chief information officer, says. “They’re asking us about the experience we had and asking advice about pursuing their own design projects. It’s pretty exciting with all the federal agencies interested. It’s creating some competition.”

IDEO’s shift from products to complex problems requires an increasingly multidisciplinary staff. Established out of David Kelley Design in 1991, and closely aligned with Stanford University’s design school, IDEO became known for seeking “T-shaped” people: designers and engineers with deep and broad skill sets—specifically, a core of technical abilities along with collaborative, conceptual, or managerial instincts. Lately it has been looking for “X-shaped people,” according to Dust: employees with “two depths, one being a craft, like organizational design, architecture, or information design, and one being industry experience. For example, you can’t do government work without knowing a lot about government.”

A case in point is Hilary Hoeber, who joined the firm in 2004 with an education in international politics and organizational behavior and experience in both e-commerce and government. As business lead for IDEO’s public sector practice, Hoeber has been piloting the rocky straits of the government acquisitions process, which include the notorious 30- to 40-page Requests for Proposals (RFPs). A successful bid requires exhaustive accounts of past performance and slavish adherence to specifications, down to typeface and margin size. “Right now it’s a hot topic in D.C. how to simplify the acquisitions process,” Hoeber says, “while still keeping it transparent and fair.” Needless to say, IDEO is involved in this discussion, too.

The government acquisitions process is just one example of how technocratic thinking tends to ignore the human perspective. After the president set a goal of reducing energy consumption by 30 percent in all government buildings by 2015, the GSA began equipping its properties with smart technology: streamlining networks and monitoring and controlling energy use, with sensors hooked up to building dashboards—video monitors that display, in real time, the energy performance of a building. The missing ingredient, it realized last year, was people. So the agency contracted IDEO to look at ways of motivating building occupants and managers to actively participate in reducing energy consumption (switching off lights, computers, and air-conditioning, for example). Among its proposals, IDEO suggested that individual tenants develop their own efficiency standards and make those programs easily shared between buildings. It produced five concept videos, one for each of the major stakeholders. “Our concern is that buildings and technology pieces are moving so fast that people aren’t grasping the benefits,” says Larry Melton, assistant commissioner of Facilities Management and Services Programs at the GSA. “In the commercial real estate industry, not just government, everyone’s trying to figure out how to incentivize customers. It’s forcing us to do our business differently. Are we there yet? No.”

In Singapore, a country whose workforce is 30 percent imported, IDEO’s human-centered perspective was seen as a way of improving a super-efficient but cold system for processing work passes (visas). IDEO’s initial recommendations, subsequently implemented by a Singapore architect, were focused on the country’s Employment Pass Service Center (EPSC), which had a certain anonymous, system-driven flavor—hard plastic chairs, an imposing linear service counter, number assignments, and authoritarian signs. In their place came upholstered seats and cabanas for families to meet with agents, a doughnut-shaped counter, check-in terminals, and screens that call visitors to the desk by name rather than number. According to Penny Han, a project director at the Ministry of Manpower, the redesigned EPSC has now hosted visits from over 80 public and private sector organizations curious to see the results of the IDEO engagement. The buzz has even reached the upper echelons of government. “They’re saying they want to be a design-thinking nation.” Hoeber says.

IDEO’s ongoing effort to help Singapore overhaul the entire process of issuing work passes is similarly aimed at humanizing the experience: a less cumbersome and opaque appeals process, an improved back-end technical system, simpler work-pass registration and collection, and a reduction in the variety of passes. Equally important, the tone of communications will become less formal, less florid, and more direct. Even the tone of communications is prototyped. “You should see the original letters. They’re all ‘herewith,’ ‘for to,’ ‘if then’—legal ramifications and all that stuff,” says Ilya Prokopoff, IDEO’s partner in charge of the project. “I just saw a really nice prototype of the letter you receive when you’re told you are able to go to Singapore. It says, ‘You can come to Singapore.’”

One striking thing about IDEO is that its culture seems to emanate from all of its people, rather than sounding like a well-honed pitch crafted by a figurehead. Innovation, it has realized, comes from diverse teams working together, and it has relayed this exact message to government. “I think they were looking for individuals to change entire organizations,” Dust says. “We were saying, ‘If you find an innovative individual, bring in a team with them; bring in four people.’ Because you can’t change a massive agency or culture by putting one person there.”

Design in the twenty-first century, after all, is not really about brilliant solo designers imposing solutions on lucky recipients. It is more about designers introducing methods that can be adopted and adapted by their host organizations. This is a big, ambitious redefinition of the term, far removed from the widely held view that design is ultimately about the styling of consumer products to boost the sales curve and, eventually, the landfill. To that extent, IDEO’s government work seems a worthy and important project for the profession as a whole.

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