This post is part of the Innovating for Equity series.
As part of our Innovating for Equity series, we’re examining how some local leaders have now taken on the painstaking work of scrubbing biases and barriers out of their designs and processes. Too often government serves inequitably. Calcified biases unevenly weigh on different groups, and systems remain littered with visible and invisible barriers that impede minorities and lower income individuals. Even newer breakthroughs we consider innovative aren’t really all that helpful if they perpetuate entrenched inequalities in new technology and practices.
The Lab @ DC, a scientific team in District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration, asks questions, tests policies, and iteratively improves processes to best serve the DC community. Partnering with District agencies, it works to correct existing approaches that inadvertently result in inequity. As Sam Quinney, Director of The Lab @ DC, explains, “if we don’t design as well or as user-friendly as possible, there’s a good chance that we’re preventing people from getting the services they deserve.”
So how can Quinney and the rest of The Lab prevent — and correct — systems that don’t just neglect to help people, but can actually thwart the efforts of minority and impoverished communities to take advantage of public support and programs? By throwing a big, public, “nerdy party” and inviting constituents to rethink the interplay of government in their lives. Welcome to Form-a-Palooza.
Launched in 2017, Form-a-Palooza is an initiative and day-long workshop that asks constituents to identify the most difficult and highly-used forms, and invites them to do a redesign with government officials and plain language experts. As Quinney explained, The Lab asks “how are people actually going to interact with government forms?” and then works backwards from there. Traditionally, the user wasn’t centered in the design, which is why so many forms were identified as difficult, confusing, and time consuming; these old documents are an example of design bias. To date, over 30 forms for the District have been redone.
The suggestions came from agencies, government data, the public, and Mayor Muriel Bowser, who recently asked The Lab to redesign the District’s forms for homeowners — all 44 of them. The forms are being redone in spurts with users, so that the final version has input from both the agencies and the people impacted. This co-design process takes about three months, and includes additional rounds of user testing. When The Lab redesigned the whole DC Public Schools enrollment package, they went out to schools with the test designs to have parents provide feedback. The Lab is a big advocate of this co-design process; despite taking longer, it reaches back into the entrenched practices and alters barriers that government staff wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify themselves.
On The Lab’s website, there are multiple examples of how The Lab has streamlined and consciously decreased the “actual or perceived burden” on the public. This attention to the burdens and blockages, which Quinney believes causes unequal access to services over time, is central to The Lab’s mission. Of course, The Lab does quite a bit more than Form-a-Palooza. As a team under Mayor Bowser, The Lab sits in the Office of the City Administrator’s Office of Budget and Performance Management, which is dedicated to improving how the district serves its residents. And with a background in education and experience on the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, Sam Quinney places a strong value on improvements that are based in evidence and research.
One way that The Lab has improved services for the District is through a focus on economic mobility, executing the vision of Mayor Bowser. This is a large part of their portfolio; ideally they spend a significant portion of their time focusing on serving the most disadvantaged populations in DC. A prime example of the interplay between their social mission and their evidence-based methods is the experiment recently conducted around Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
The DC Department of Health and Human Services administers TANF and requires an annual recertification process for families receiving their basic monetary benefits. Administrators suspected that more people should be recertifying but weren’t, and had data to back that up. Many families who had failed to recertify would come in and sign up, beginning the TANF application process from the start. The problem is that starting fresh both takes longer and has stricter income limits than recertification. So, families could receive a smaller cash benefits or no benefit at all, by going through the new registration instead of simply re-upping their existing TANF status without coverage loss.
The Lab was asked to help improve this process, with the goal of reducing drop-off of eligible families during the recertification proceedings. They looked at the whole process, and discovered that not only was the recertification just 60 days, but that it had to be completed in person, and didn’t have user-friendly communications. While being mindful of the legal requirements for communication around the federal program, The Lab wanted to find something that worked better for DC families, so they randomly divided the TANF recipients into two groups. Bringing in principles of behavioral insights, The Lab created an additional reminder letter that also showed the closest service center for recertification, simplified how the required steps were described, and used insights about deadlines and procrastination to encourage families to act. This nudge had a significant impact; the recipients were more likely to recertify than the control group, which led to roughly 750 more families retaining their benefits. The Lab recently found out that the new template has been adapted for families to re-up their certification for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Since The Lab is within the government, the team’s ability to run these tests and analyze the results with the agencies increases efficiency. And from a research perspective, the randomized control trials are the best — and most equitable — way to learn. Instead of relying on traditional first come, first serve approaches, The Lab will do extensive outreach to communities, recruiting a large number of people to participate in their work. This was the case with DC’s homelessness prevention program DCFlex. Housing is one of the biggest expenses for individuals and families, so The Lab is working with DHS on DCFlex rental assistance that can fluctuate depending on a family’s income and expenses each month. After soliciting a large group through mailers and text outreach, The Lab randomly assigned participants to smaller experiment and control groups, instead of just rewarding the first people to sign up for a trial.
For other governments that are interested in remediating unequal systems through experimental re-designs, user engagement, and nudges, Quinney shared a few tips with Data-Smart. His first recommendation is to understand that context matters a lot for this work. The team learned the importance of localizing evidence-based policies lifted from other governments. Moving away from just copying and pasting programs from other cities has helped significantly; they now look at the District and try to “meet priorities as they stand”, instead of directly replicating projects from other places. Of course, since not every initiative results in sufficient evidence to support change, The Lab undertakes multiple projects at a time. That way if one trial doesn’t work out it wasn’t the only thing they were doing for that community.
And for leaders who are embarking on the journey to dismantle biases and test new designs and nudges, Quinney recommends having patience as this develops. As with any experimentation, there will be “swings and misses” so having the time and space to figure out what does and doesn’t work is key to improving. Mayor Bowser and the Office of the City Administrator have afforded The Lab @ DC the ability to work diligently and build a solid foundation — what Quinney calls “the unsexy work.” This includes project management, choosing software, and settling on a staffing model. That foundation will bring longevity and trust to the process.
The other reason for patience? Quinney maintains that teams like his don’t need to be so focused on overhauling whole systems; instead, they should focus on how to do the process and increase equity as well as possible, while still working within the existing system. Finding the faults and flaws, and asking constituents where they have the burden of systemic biases, means The Lab is in a prime position to do the real innovation — tweaking government to work for everyone.