Mini-project: be a designer for policymaking

This post is part of an ongoing documentation series for my design thesis research on Maintaining Policy Intent for City Planners. Please find the full collection here.

After talking to planners and design experts and reading all the books and toolkits, I’ve started to compile a list of strategies and “success measures” (see step 1/4 below) for “design”/“innovation” in the government.

Originally I hoped to bring this straight back to the planning context, but I quickly came across uncertainties. On one hand, there are valid concerns for planners to participate in anything more involved than interviews, especially when it may affect their current workflow. On the other hand, I am struggling to articulate what concrete benefits (and risks) my upcoming research activities may bring to the participants. In short, what is it and why are we doing this?

To give myself a platform for experimentation, I decided to run a 6-week mini project in which I would join a smaller, lower-stake policymaking process as a designer and tried out different strategies learned from previous research. It embodies the “research through design” concept:

I eventually chose the CMU campus as my context. While much smaller in scale than city governments, universities face similar challenges in terms of bureaucracy, risk-averse culture, complex internal regulations, concerns with public images, and the presence of distinct (and often isolated) communities. Most importantly, as a student I’ll have more leverage to propose any “student project” to university staff and get their buy-in — if the project fails, be the blame on the student 🤷.

Over the past months I’ve compiled a list of “criteria” — elements of a policymaking process that indicate a better success potential for “human-centered”/“innovative”/“design” methods.

This list is to be taken with a grain of salt — they are simply things I observed through academic publications, case studies, and interviews with planners and designers. This list is also work-in-progress as I continue to read and experience different policymaking cases.

Here is the raw document I use to keep track of these criteria. Feel free to comment or make suggestions.

This is perhaps the trickiest part of the project. I was lucky to have well-connected faculty and staff to guide me through the exploration.

We used both the criteria list and other context-specific criteria (ex. “seasons” when problems emerge, scale of impact, personality of staff) to determine our “problem space” — the Smoke-Less Campus policy.

First introduced by the campus executives in 2017, the intent of the Smoke-Less Campus policy is to turn CMU into a smoking-free campus over the course of two years through gradual reduction of designated smoking areas. This broad policy was further developed by an oversight committee of students, faculty, health department staff, and facility staff.

In August 2018, the committee eliminated 1/3 of designated smoking areas — to discourage smoking. However, there were repeated complaints about people smoking in non-designated areas and leaving cigarette butts right by the “do not smoke” signs. With the cold winter approaching, the chances of people traveling to unsheltered designated smoking area to smoke are simply slim.

In short, the policy intent of reducing smoking is not realized with this particular implementation, which led to the “how might we” statement the project manager and I determined:

After talking with the Rebecca (who is the Workplace Safety Manager for Environmental Health & Safety department and the de facto “project manager” of this policy), I pitched her the idea of a “design-led” mini research project — and she agreed!

After the agreement, we spent no time finding out what we could do with limited time (two weeks between Thanksgiving and finals week) and scrambled to find small funding to support outreach activities.

Rebecca was most interested in the smokers outreach to get additional data points upon which the committee can act in the spring. I was interested in conducting the process review to better visualize the problem areas, as more and more “grey areas” emerged during my research. We eventually agreed that both of us would collaborate on the smokers outreach while I took a first stab at the process review.

Knowing the in-and-out of smoking on campus, Rebecca recommended four locations on campus to capture feedback from staff, faculty, and students. We had the poster up for about a week and collected feedback from both smokers and non-smokers.

The feedback has both legitimate complaints and trolls, along with different interpretations of “smoking” (weed, e-cigarette, etc.).

In general, people who smoke in the designated area out of compliance and respect for others. People who don’t smoke in the designated areas consider time, distance, and protection to be major barriers.

In addition to the poster, Rebecca and I also camped at the student center and asked students about their experience with smoking. While most people we talked to weren’t smokers, they gave us very useful feedback!

It turned out that for students, “everyone knows cigarette smoking is bad” while e-cigarette, especially Juul, has gain significant popularity within undergrads for its perceived weaker health impact, physical impact on others (smell), and availability for indoor smoking (which is actually a violation). If the school is truly concerned about nicotine addiction (versus the “smoke-free” status), it needs to regulate e-cigarette as well. (With the currently rule, e-cigarette is allowed anywhere outdoor on campus.)

So far I’ve done a first pass of process review (see below) and identified key components that could lead to problems in the policy implementation stage. I have also had interviews with half of the committee members. In the next week I’ll further summarize my learning and visualize the policymaking territory more.

While the process is still on-going and I have very little sense of the “success” of these strategies, I want to reflect on a few things I’ve learned so far as a designer in this “research through design” activity.

When I first reached out to university staff, I was showed by talks about internal politics, lack of engagement, and the “slowness” of everything. There were many times where I didn’t think this 6-week exercise was going anywhere, but the list helped me stay focus on the opportunities — the situation, the structure, and especially the promising characteristics of stakeholders — ultimately urged me to walk down this path of exploration.

Because this was a short-term“research”, I asked for many things I would not have asked if I was paid or had to sustain a long-term relationship.

For instance, I wanted to see if there is capacity for any small budget sign-off from the leadership, so when we had “listening tour” idea, I asked Rebecca if the department would pay for about $100 worth of pizza and donuts. Rebecca was hesitant at first but emailed her direct report — and we got the approval within 5 mins! These types of small wins really helped boost our morale and gain mini recognition.

This may be biased to my experience as a student and previously a consultant, but I’ve found it helpful to have weekly progress to show my commitment and capacity in navigating ambiguity. Especially with this special collaboration framework (myself as a design volunteer), I simply felt the need to prove myself.

While the energy was useful in the beginning, it became harder for me to manage towards the end of the project — knowing that it’d take time for the evidence of policy failure to emerge, and that the piece of evidence is what it takes to hit the “real rock bottom” and trigger leadership buy-in. I was still working on documentation, but I knew my documentation wouldn’t have the power that I intended.

This was mainly in the context of this special collaboration framework (myself as a design volunteer), but I have found it important to negotiate work time with the project manager. Originally I was tempted to take in all the work because (1) I already felt bad adding to Rebecca’s workload (2) I had strong ownership over certain design processes.

I quickly realized that this workload was not sustainable and I needed to push for collaboration. The process of finding the fine line was not easy and I don’t think I’ve got it right yet. I will need to be much more aware of this aspect once I start working with planners.

Walking into the “research through design” project, I had zero expectation and all the fears. I felt like an imposter in the policy space and felt very uncomfortable when I couldn’t back what I found with any literature or evidence (particularly when “evidence-based planning” is the existing paradigm in policymaking ). Looking back, I’m glad that I’ve push for this adductive and immersive research. If anything, it has arguably given me the necessary confidence to move on with my research — in the city government policymaking context.

Mini-project: be a designer for policymaking

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