If you’re planning to redesign a whole city, you need to start somewhere

Anthony Lyons is the City Manager for Gainesville, Florida, where he is leading the local government through an effort to become more citizen-centered by focusing on user experience.


When Gainesville began this citizen-centered redesign, the first focus was on making it easier to start a business in the city, hence the creation of the Department of Doing. Why start there?

If you’re planning to redesign a whole system, or a whole city, you need to start somewhere, and I was the Planning and Development Director at the time. It’s an area that most cities struggle with, whether it’s permitting or zoning or planning or engagement, so it seemed that we could have a real learning opportunity. When we began using a citizen-centered framework in Gainesville, we wanted to figure out how to name departments in a way that would make people take notice. Not everybody knows what the Department of Doing is, so they’ll ask questions, and that gives you a platform to explain your work. We can tell them about how the Department is in charge of planning and development, essentially a one-stop shop for people who want to start a business or plan a renovation, but that also gives us a chance to explain our broader work in making government easier to navigate.


Is it fair to explain the push for a citizen-centered government as a department-by-department redesign?

Yes and no. A city is made up of many different systems, so we can’t think about departments without the context of a larger structure. For example, we’re working on our Emergency Response Plan now, so we retooled the radio system for first responders and next we’ll be bidding out smart connections for our streetlights. But those new systems have to connect to other areas in government, so we also confront the challenge of flow. For all this work, I need a great HR department to bring talent, so that needs to be redesigned at the same time.


Is there a plan in place as you peel back the layers of this system?

When you start this kind of movement— and I think of it that way, rather than a plan, because it’s not just a few projects, it’s a complete change in how we think about local government— there are more than enough day-to-day issues to fill your time. And you still need to work on those, but you also need to think bigger and systemically.

Like a lot of cities, we have a population that are frequent utilizers of 911 for non-emergencies. And in the most polite way, we wanted to ask: how do we get you to stop calling us? So we did some research, and found that people were calling 911 because they couldn’t get out of the house— they needed planks and concrete poured to give them access to the street. So it was a sidewalk issue. That was a small problem that revealed a much bigger public works problem, and it took going out into the streets to solve it. When we did, we ended up cutting this population’s 911 calls by 50-60%.


And the department that handles sidewalks has seen some changes recently as well— how did that happen?

We recently split our Public Works department into two. One is the more typical department dealing with solid waste, mosquito control, sidewalks, stormwater and so on. But then we split off the Department of Mobility to handle buses, bikeshares, parking, and traffic management. We needed to make smaller pieces in order to improve the system bit by bit. We came to this because we needed a new Public Works Director, which forced us to think about the focus of the department. Should it be transit oriented or public works oriented? We really needed departments in both areas, especially as transportation has shifted, and we now need to figure out how buses, bikeshares, rideshares, and other modes work together. If you fix each piece in sequence, the user experience would be terrible, but if you peel back the layers of the problem first and then address them simultaneously, you end up with better results.


As you decide on projects, how can you be sure that you’re trending on the right path to a citizen-centered government?

A lot of the things we talk about now, like user experience and citizen-centered design, just weren’t around when I started this work in 2001. That was the year after GPS was made commercially available— but the technology to create that had been in development for decades. So my biggest fear in this work isn’t that we’re not on the right path, but that we won’t see the type of citizen-centered governance we want to see for another 27 years.

Folks in government will sometimes wait around for citizens to tell them what to do, but the citizens may or may not know what to ask for. Steve Jobs always said that Apple built products that people didn’t know they needed yet. No one is asking us for the exact thing we’re aiming for, but people are asking for the government to be more transparent and easier to navigate. We’ve trying to move the needle forward as best we can, because we can’t wait 27 years for a better government.


What’s on the horizon for Gainesville in the coming year?

In the city manager’s office, my motto for 2019 is going to be “Shift Happens.” We just need to keep altering the landscape to do more and do better to put citizens first.


For more information on Gainesville’s efforts to reform local government with UX design, check out this Fast Company article.