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We need more service designers in government

Liana Dragoman lost her home to fire a decade ago. Here's how the trauma of that experience is shaping her work in city government to make services more accessible.

City Hall. (Photo by Flickr user Michlt, used under a Creative Commons license)
Ten years ago, my apartment caught fire. I lost most of my belongings and my home. Worse yet, a good portion of my body was impacted by the fire. I had to re-learn how to walk and use my right hand.

The trauma was sudden, painful and sustaining. I had no frame of reference for what was happening and what would happen. Life was surreal. Language failed me. The future seemed unimaginable. Will I make it? How will I pay my bills? How will I get my life back on track?

Then there were the phone calls. The dropping off of documents at insurance and government agencies. The physical signing of paperwork with an injured hand. The many steps in a process. The many literal steps. The uncertainty. The Am I doing this right? Because if I mess up the consequences are far too great. The explaining of my story. The repeating of my story. The reopening of wounds. The void of answers. The tireless champions. The systems that don’t support people.

Months later, there were more processes and more forms and more worries. Years later, there are still scars.

Similar to others, I was navigating healthcare and government services in a compromised state: stressed and feeling vulnerable. Within this context, every unanswered question felt like a barrier to entry.

Service designers design for the entirety of an experience.

What if the steps, prompts and forms that government provided were sensitive to my trauma, or at a baseline, actually understandable? What if services were easy to initiate, use, keep track of and renew, so I could access money to purchase food, pay my bills and enroll in Medicaid with minimal complication? What if customer service representatives had the resources and training to effectively support themselves, my care team and me? What if services were structured around people’s whole lives? What if I could focus on my healing, not on navigating complicated services?

These are the questions I’ve sat with for a long time, the questions that have shaped my career.

I believe service designers — in collaboration with a host of stakeholders — can act as the connective tissue between the complex answers to these questions. And my pursuit of answers led me to pursue a career in the field of service design, specifically in the public sector. Currently, I’m the Service Design Practice Lead and Deputy Director in Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT).

Municipal, state and federal governments are massive service providers, and many public-sector services are crucial and essential. Think: foreclosure prevention, affordable and supportive housing, emergency preparedness and response, and services related to the health and wellness of people, families and communities.

A colleague in city government said to me recently: “We know our services can be improved and we know where they should be improved. We perform this work day in and day out. It will be helpful to work with a service designer so they can help us imagine how to improve them.”

But what does the how look like?


Service design as a field of practice takes a holistic view.

Designing services isn’t about developing one policy, one digital tool, one form, or one process in isolation from an ecosystem of interactions. Service designers design for the entirety of an experience or how all the artifacts and people within a service work together to provide a cohesive experience over time.

Public-sector service designers seek to understand the people who participate in a service ecosystem (e.g., frontline staff, policymakers, service partners and those who use a service), the quality of their relationships and the histories, context and politics that inform those relationships. Service designers map and visualize service experiences from beginning to end to uncover what works and doesn’t from a human perspective. They employ design research methods to effectively frame the problem at hand, challenge bias and assumption — and with a textured understanding — humbly grapple with the ethics, policies, processes, information, channels, products and technological infrastructure that make a service work.

On Thursday, Oct. 19 I’m presenting at PhillyCHI and Delphic Digital’s “UX in the Age of Service Design” event, should you want to hear more.


However, service designers aren’t saviors; they’re partners. Service designers are most effective when they co-ideate, design and implement solutions with dedicated public servants, domain experts, nonprofit service partners and those who use the service. They organize communities around deliberate change. They enhance service ecosystems from small to system-wide prototypes and pilots — iterating interventions with frontline staff and residents in order to increase the chances of long-term successful implementation.

The City of Philadelphia has been using these and other evidence-based design methods to improve interactions between government and the public. The Department of Revenue, Parks and Recreation Department and the Office of Homeless Services are some of the agencies using design to increase the effectiveness of their policies, programs, and services.

Since March of 2017, ODDT has partnered with the GovLabPHL team — a multi-agency group led by Anjali Chainani in the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation, and Intergovernmental Affairs — to curate and host a speaker series that explores the role strategic design disciplines can play in transforming public sector services. In July of 2017, ODDT and the Mayor’s Office jointly accepted a Knight Cities Challenge award to fund the PHL Participatory Design Lab where a service designer and social scientist will be hired to work on service improvement projects with with the public, front-line staff, program directors and other stakeholders.

Prompted by the Mayor’s Office Digital Director Stephanie Waters, small teams of City employees are enrolled in free human-centered design classes with IDEO and Acumen. The Innovation Management Team trains employees on creative problem-solving through the Innovation Academy. ODDT continues to employ design and content strategy tactics to enhance the public’s interfacing with City information via the prototype. We’re experimenting with design across agencies and attempting to build a culture of design to enhance employee engagement and public-facing service delivery.


When I was in the ICU after my fire, a woman working with the hospital visited me. She had survived a fire years before.

She talked to me about her experiences, showed me her skin grafts, and let me touch them. This very simple human intervention in my care was the key ingredient to my recovery. It allowed me to imagine a future beyond what I was experiencing at the time of the accident. These kinds of service interactions are invisible to the unaffected. These kinds of dignified interactions demonstrate people-focused service delivery where human relationships are centered to increase efficacy.

What might dignified service delivery look like in the analogous space of government?

It’s my belief we should center human histories and lived experiences within policymaking and service-improvement contexts. We need more service designers in government to codesign holistic solutions with public servants, domain experts, nonprofit partners and the public so that crucial, essential government services can be navigated with ease regardless of who a person is, their history or their current circumstance.


We’re hosting the final “BY DESIGN: Transforming public sector services” event on Nov. 16. Click here to register. We’ll continue to expand public engagement opportunities around service design in the City of Philadelphia through the PHL Participatory Design Lab project. Please email to get involved.

Companies: City of Philadelphia

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