Public service with purpose

Posted on February 25, 2021

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Early in my career, my best friend was working as a social worker. She helped LGBTQ foster youth navigate trauma. She supported them in relationships with foster and birth parents, as well as other kids.

At the end of the day, she had to document the happenings of the day, sometimes traumatic, into their case files. Her employer gave her an old laptop. To enter in the information the software system presented a screen with a bunch of little fields.

In addition to the poor user interface, the system would often crash after clicking submit. No, it didn’t save the information she had entered.

While this memory is almost 15 years old, I’m reminded of it often because not enough has changed.

Archaic, poorly-designed software and old equipment still lead to errors, inefficiency, and inequities.

One of the joys of public service is working alongside creative, dedicated people. They keep people safe. They provide safety net services to vulnerable people. They are creators and sustainers of our quality of life, from our parks to our libraries, our roads to our sewers.

Public servants didn’t sign up for inefficiencies and frustration. They signed up to serve. They deserve the right tools and support to do their jobs.

The challenge

Small, local government budgets and employees are stretched thin. They are often forced to be reactive rather than strategic in their service delivery. The Great Recession, coronavirus pandemic, and rising pension costs have made balancing a budget hard. The cuts typically result in decreased resident satisfaction and employee morale.

Asked to “do more with less,” public servants are wearing more hats than ever. They provide critical public services but often lack the tools and methods to provide good digital services.

This can lead to inefficient or inequitable services, frustration, and decreased public trust. Without trust, tax measures fail. Elected officials rotate through like a revolving door and satisfaction levels continue to drop.

The solution

What does the solution to these problems look like? Local government services are easy to use, both by the public and public servants. People can easily find them through an internet search or on government websites. They understand the information without a high level of education or training. They can complete forms and transactions without friction.

Employees are empowered to improve digital services and information over time. They don’t need a lot of training to use the tools. They have the space, permission, and support to make improvements.

People have helpful and timely information so they can stay safe during emergencies. They know how to get the services they need. They don’t dread dealing with their local government. Instead, their experience of government services is good. They feel good that their tax dollars are well-spent. Budgets get easier to balance due to efficiency gains.

This results in increased levels of satisfaction with and trust in local government.

All of this results in increased levels of satisfaction with and trust in local government.

Department of Civic Things

On my birthday in 2009, I started as an intern in San Rafael, California’s redevelopment agency. Ten years later I was the director of a brand-new department: Digital Service and Open Government.

After twelve amazing years in San Rafael, I am starting a new chapter. One with more time zones and an opportunity to work with and learn from cities all over the world. This new chapter is the Department of Civic Things.

Department of Civic Things helps local governments serve people better through effective communications and digital services. We do this by providing strategic advice, implementation, training, and coaching services.

We’ll help local governments buy the right software and design services so they work for people. We will help them communicate information effectively.

We’ll do this by designing with and for real people, empowering product owners, and fostering a service-minded culture (learn more about our service offerings and approach).

I got into public service to make things better for people. That’s why a lot of people get into public service. So together, let’s create more of what we signed up for: public service with purpose.

Get in touch

If you’re interested in discussing how Department of Civic Things can help your agency, let’s talk. Email me at or follow Department of Civic Things on Twitter and Instagram.

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