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If a municipality opened its doors to your ideas for transforming service delivery, how would you go about it? What follows are insights from one anthropologist given such an opportunity.

“Do I answer the phones or prototype [an improvement]?” That question was put to me in 2014 by a colleague who felt he didn’t have organizational support to experiment with change while also meeting his daily tasks of serving the public. He had finished a workshop I led about how to design better government services. I followed up with him to find out if he had applied any of his learnings. His question was part of a longer discussion we had about why he couldn’t create change.

We both work in San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. Our organization helps about a quarter of the city’s residents who are demographically diverse. They may have disabilities; be non-native English speakers, elderly, veterans, or living with abuse or in poverty. Nearly eight years ago, I was several months into cofounding an Innovation Office. Our team’s role is to improve service experiences with clients and employees.

Our office’s existence is one of many efforts by our agency to transform long-standing practices of welfare agencies nationwide that are racist, heteronormative, and oppressive into more equitable and respectful service experiences. We still have much to do, but we have made considerable progress by improving the usability of our website and paper forms, using text message reminders more effectively, and reducing waiting times in our lobbies and over the phone, among other changes.

Experimenting towards better ways of serving the public has long been done by many national, regional, and local governments. What follows are insights researching or practicing an anthropology of design, technology, and policy for the past 15 years. When taken together, these insights serve as entry points for those interested in applying anthropological inquiry to help improve public policies and programs.

Follow the money

The US government regularly publishes announcements of new funding for innovative policies and programs in the Federal Registrar. There are multiple sources that could aid our agency to explore alternative ways of translating policy into better digital and non-digital services. Getting innovation grants allows people in governments to do things they have wanted to try but had lacked the resources or time to prioritize the work.

For example, our Innovation Office has long sought to create a client experience group to codevelop policy implementation and service experiences in new ways with the public. In 2020, we were one of nine awardees of a US Department of Agriculture grant to innovate food assistance services. One might think that universities would be well represented by partnering with their tribal government, city, county or state, but only one academic institution in our cohort was awarded any funding through such a partnership. The Federal Registrar is a resource for more academic-government collaborations beyond common sources anthropologists access.

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Move quicker

Our Innovation Office runs service design sprints (a rapid design process). Basically, in five days or less we map the experiences of the public and employees with a service, identify obstacles in the service journey, generate ideas for reducing or removing those obstacles, develop prototypes, and then create an implementation plan to test those ideas within 30, 60, and 90 days. Our approach is a blend of Lean Process Improvement adapted to government by Denver’s Peak Academy and service blueprinting. Examples can be found in our portfolio of work.

There are resources to move quicker, including from the Rapid Research, Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL) at University College London. They offer online courses for learners globally. Anthropologists created the lab and provide workshops for those seeking to adapt ethnographic methods to a faster-paced environment.

The rise of government digital services offers a host of ways to prototype and test policies more quickly. The US Digital Services has several examples, including working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to test policy ideas while building a digital application. Policy testing coupled with digital product development allows one to know whether some aspects of a policy will be effective before implementation. This is more efficient than years of evaluative work that can happen after a policy has been rolled out.

Partner up

We are only successful by collaborating with other teams. Consider our agency’s racial equity office. We did rapid ethnographic research for them about making our hiring process more inclusive and fair. This involved interviewing job candidates who were not offered a job, and understanding what they felt, thought, and did across the hiring process.

I’ve found many anthropologists believe equity to be important. If you hold this to be true, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity has an accessible map, describing how it has worked with hundreds of local and regional US governments. Their efforts, among others, contribute to the proliferation of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging offices within the public sector, including my agency. Contacting such offices for a short-term research project may be one avenue to partnership.

I advised the Anthropology Department at Boise State University and shared my experiences with students in their undergraduate user research courses and graduate certificate program. Our past work together helped us to receive the 2021 Visiting Fellows award from the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs. I plan to help students and faculty to examine the various ways user experience research contributes to public sector innovation projects. Their documentation will help build out the university’s Open Educational Resources database, available to anyone online. What sort of partnership awaits others seeking to join forces between academic and government colleagues?

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Toolkit consisting of thirteen tools

Expand the toolkit

Methods from human-centered design have been applied widely to improve the creation and administration of policy at every level of government worldwide. The Biden Administration recently cited this methodology as an important approach to realizing its “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.”

We center our agency’s values in our design process, known as “equity-centered design.” Our practice means we try to anchor equitable service experiences for the public and employees by understanding how those with disabilities or non-native English speakers have their needs met when visiting our lobbies or using our website. We ask project collaborators to identify examples of how trauma, discrimination, oppression, and power unfold in the lives of coworkers or clients. Doing so serves as a touchstone throughout our projects while examining service journeys, identifying systemic obstacles, generating ideas for improvements, and building and testing ideas.

We also use behavioral insights techniques, including nudging people’s behavior through the presentation of information as well as from randomized controlled trials. University professors have helped us use these tools on separate projects. One involved text messaging to encourage Medicaid clients to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We used machine learning to develop different messages and then randomly tested them on a subset of the population, examining how many clicked the link to apply.

We have also adapted and incorporated lesser-known methods including liberatory structures. These freely available facilitation techniques are designed for groups of people to remake organizational and societal structures, including our imperfect selves. An example includes the method known as “panarchy” that helps teams to tie systemic barriers of change to the individual actions that may make those structures more rigid or porous.

We have also drawn on Strategic Foresight or “futuring” such as the Cone of Plausibility. This practice is not about telling the future, but rather anticipating multiple futures and preparing or building towards preferable one(s). Consider futuring’s application toward more equitable educational outcomes and how policy futurism itself has become its own object of ethnographic research.

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Data heart

What’s next?

The above “lessons learned” validate the importance of an anthropology of data. By this I mean, how data is viewed and experienced within governments shapes the design of public policies, programs, and people’s experiences. This ranges from algorithmic decision-making, to success metrics of a program in daily reports, to the feedback the public provides about a service or an individual employee’s performance.

Rachel Douglas-Jones, Antonia Walford and Nick Seaver (2021:12) find that researchers can become “accidental data ethnographers” by recognizing how formalized norms of quantification to know, control, or achieve some other ends profoundly shape the lives of their research participants. Some of us working in the anthropology of policy may be accidental or even intentional data ethnographers (danah boyd, Genevieve Bell, Hannah Knox, Marliyn Strathern, Sarah Pink). Being aware of data’s constructedness, politicization and limitations will serve anthropologists well when engaging with public sector innovation projects.

Anthropological training primed me to enter public sector employment from a position of critique. Most government employees I have worked with want to do the right thing every time, but feel constrained organizationally or legally. Working within a municipality has demonstrated that an earnest engagement in the shared project of improvement is fruitful. It advances goals that are procedural (better client and employee experiences) and values-oriented (equity and inclusion). Finding alternative sources of funding, working more quickly, collaborating with new partners, broadening methodological approaches, and data innovation have been central to engaging meaningfully with the complexity of public sector service delivery.


Marc K. Hébert

Marc K. Hébert, PhD is an anthropologist who helps teams create better service experiences. This work is done through design research, facilitation and coaching. Besides being a consultant and trainer (including at RREAL), he leads a unique service design unit in San Francisco government.

Cite as

Hébert, Marc K.. 2021. “An Anthropology of Civic Design.” Anthropology News website, December 20, 2021.