A conversation with Marni Wilhite, Head of Product, City of Austin’s Office of Design & Delivery

Marni will be speaking at our upcoming event — Control the Room: The 1st Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on May 23, 2019, learn more and get your tickets here.

In 2000, Marni was hired by the University of Texas Electrical and Computer Engineering Department to do something new (although now wildly prolific): design and develop an interactive platform that allowed students to take tests and quizzes from the comfort of their homes. This experience led to the opportunity to join one of the leading international research teams as a design engineer for wearable computers at UT in 2001, at a time when the only other notable work in this area in the US was from MIT.

Marni Wilhite, Head of Digital Transformation at City of Austin
Marni Wilhite, Head of Digital Transformation at City of Austin

After years of working in the private sector helping build products for companies like Samsung as well as smalls startups in Austin’s backyard, the thought of working for the government was not something she had considered. While she was learning a lot about utilizing data, augmented intelligence, and business models, she wanted more. She was feeling burnt out from working in careers where she felt like she was not impacting the world in a positive way when a position came up in The City of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation fellows program. She jumped at the chance to use her experience in technology for a greater good.

“For those of us who have felt burned out in private industry, it’s attractive to come in for a year and help improve government services, and then you can go back. Just take a pay cut for a year and come do really great work that’ll make you proud. You’ll learn a lot and be able to take that knowledge back to your private industry career.”

What started as a fellows program eventually lead to the creation of the Office of Design & Delivery in Austin, which Marni now leads as Head of Digital Transformation. It’s one of the most successful city-level program of its kind in the US. “Starting this kind of program in government is similar to starting one in large bureaucratic companies. You need buy-in and support from leadership, you need someone leading the initiative who has done this before. You need to take hiring practices very seriously. You need to ensure that you evaluate partner agencies with projects.”

The Office of Design & Delivery team.
The Office of Design & Delivery team.

Marni has observed, both in the public and private sectors, that when teams are hired to do a job but don’t get proper buy-in from leadership, what they end up leaving behind does not work long-term. The employees cannot take ownership of the program put in place, which leads to a breakdown in the system. “The design doesn’t actually work well for the things that you’re trying to do. There aren’t the competencies in-house for the technology that was chosen to manage it for the long term, so there’s not that operational and maintenance cost that needs to be understood, and the competency set that’s necessary to do it well.”

Images from the work Marni’s team does for Austin residents.
Images from the work Marni’s team does for Austin residents.

The Pilot program that turned into real change

When the Fellows program started in Austin it was tested to see if they would be able to hire people from private industry to come in and work for the government. The government has a reputation for being boring and slow, so how could they attract people from the private industry to come into government, and will it actually help with improving services?

They ran a pilot project around recycling using behavioral science and technology that had great results and were able to get buy-in. Because of this, they were able to establish the Office of Design and Delivery to start doing digital transformation and service design work across Austin.

Marni spoke about how you need the right balance of people working on a project for real results. “It can be really hard to break a career civil servant out of the patterns that have been doing for 20 years. If we’re talking about big transformational change, you need someone that’s done that kind of transformation before to help people get past those roadblocks. Otherwise, people have a negative outlook because they’ve been stuck doing the same thing and being told they can’t do it any differently for so long. They don’t feel empowered.”

An image from the City of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation fellows program.
An image from the City of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation fellows program.

Failure is an option

One of the biggest differences she has faced when it comes to government versus private sector work in that there is a real fear of failure.

“One of the biggest things that we see in government is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt…failures can be a headline in the news.”

“One of the biggest things that we see in government is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The fear of failure is really strong. We’re a public organization. We’re supposed to be transparent. Anybody can ask for public information and so failures can be a headline in the news. There’s a fear of trying something new because they’re afraid of the backlash if it fails.”

She states that you have to work with agencies on opening up and giving people the space to try something new. She encourages fast prototyping and testing because not every prototype will work; but the faster they get done, the quicker you learn.

“Before trying to push for new ideas, I always ask stakeholders to tell me why something might fail. Usually, when you give them room to be heard regarding where they are hesitant, they will open up because they feel like their concerns aren’t being disregarded.”

Marni feels getting the challenges out of the way first makes for a better project in the end. “I picked up a technique from reading about NASA and how they do pre-mortems. You have rockets that blow up, and then it’s a big deal because people die; So they pick a project and they do a pre-mortem at the beginning and say, ‘What will make this fail? What are the failures that could happen and how could they happen?’ It actually leads to a stronger project in the end. You get more buy-in because you’re accounting for those challenges. It empowers people to know that those things are going to be taken into account and we can test for them early.”

Innovation that does good

Since Marni started working with the City of Austin she has finally been able to do things she feels are really making an impact on the community. “We worked with the Office of Police Oversight to do a department transformation — how do we interact and engage with the community? Their goal was to have enough data to make informed decisions about what kind of policies need to be in place for police training. We created digital forms for people to submit complaints and thank yous.”

She continued: “Usually, thank yous can take months to get back to the police officer. But, because we’ve done this digital implementation, now it took less than a week for there to be social recognition of this police officer who made a woman who had been a victim of sexual assault feel empowered and safe again. Being able to put people forward and say they’re doing it well is a way that you can influence other people’s behavior. It’s an exciting outcome…”

“Being able to put people forward and say they’re doing it well is a way that you can influence other people’s behavior.”

One place she’s been inspired by is the Danish Design Center, which is led by Christian Bason. In terms of service design, design thinking and designing things that meet societies needs, Marni feels that the Scandinavians are way ahead of the United States. “They understand that cognitive capacity is diminished when you don’t have income that’s at a living wage. They understand that your life is better when those things are happening. They understand that companies can support that, but their end goal is to support humans being happy and getting what they need.”

Marni knows that it’s not going to happen overnight, but thinks this type of innovation can inspire her and other government employees to find solutions that meet the needs of the city and its residents. She stated that within the government there tends to be a lot of mistrust from the public and when government services aren’t designed in a way that supports people this lack of trust grows. “I’m keen on how we can test services that function really well and regaining trust to show people that it can be worth it to invest in a government.”

Can cities work together?

Marni feels you can learn a lot by visiting other cities and getting to know those involved in making change. “ I love mayors. Mayors are incredible optimists. They’re trying to support their communities.”

She works with groups such as the US Conference of Mayors to listen and learn from what is happening in other cities and how they are innovating ways to handle issues, make big changes and solve problems. She also uses her own personal travel time to visit and take calls with local city staff.

Four tips from Marni on innovation in government

  1. Empower career civil servants to think differently. Most don’t consider themselves innovators, but they are!
  2. Before diving into a project, allow everyone to voice their concerns on what could fail. Think through the failures beforehand to give everyone the sense they are being heard and considered. A better product will come out of it.
  3. Get buy-in and support from leadership. You also need someone leading the initiative who has done this before. Take hiring practices very seriously. Also, evaluate partner agencies closely and create a formal document to be clear about expectations and what you’ll need for success.
  4. Make sure you have one decision maker that is recognized by all if there is a lack of consensus. Too many decision makers can cause confusion, and prevent the team from making progress.

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.