Knowledge shouldn’t be limited to insights from our direct networks

Lauren Lockwood served as Boston’s first Chief Digital Officer. She recently moved to Philadelphia, where she is conducting research and helping cities and states adopt agile methods and improve their digital services. Tweet her at @lflockwood.

From The Commons: We love the ideas that Lauren writes about as a starting point for the field to share what it knows in a cohesive, discoverable way. But we also know that there is so much more we can be doing to connect and learn from each other. Lauren is interested in meeting others who are also wrestling with how best to exchange lessons learned. You can find her tweeting at @lflockwood.

How many times have you been inspired by an innovative project happening in a city somewhere but then struggled to find a link to it months later? I do this all the time. Then I sit around Googling things like, “Austin burrito.” Hmm, no. I know it had something to do with Tex-Mex and government. Ah. “Civiqueso.”

Over the last few years, we’ve seen incredible experiments happening at all levels of government. When teams have enough bandwidth, they’re even documenting and sharing it (thank you!). Emergency managers in Columbia, SC, collaborated with Waze during Hurricane Joaquin to help emergency responders navigate the flooded streets to rescue people. The City of Boston is pulling back the curtain on their newest digital service. The town of Cary, NC is testing sewer water to better understand which neighborhoods have the highest opioid use so they can target supportive services where they are most needed.

Documenting and sharing the things government organizations have learned is one problem. Finding that information when you need it is a whole separate issue. Right now, we see invaluable insights surfaced scattershot across blogs, news articles, and government websites. As practitioners, we often make a mental note to return to it when we need it. At best, maybe we piece together a mental map of best practices on a given topic.

But we are service delivery people. We should be able to solve this problem. What if instead we centrally collected and organized what we’re learning—including the details that make it useful and tags to make it discoverable? If we do, these nuggets can become collective knowledge.

So how do we do this? At a basic level, we need to document and share what we’re trying and what we’re learning. For people out there considering sharing projects, some things I’ve found most useful from my time spent hunting and gathering:

Emphasize tactical details

What information would another doer-of-things need if they wanted to do a similar project in a different jurisdiction? Hint: not the 1-minute sizzle reel your Mayor showcased at her State of the City address or the press release you spent three weeks editing. Marketing successful civic innovation projects is important for building awareness and creating visibility for the work, but it has also become the default way to surface information. Too often, insights into the work end there. Sharing tactical details like the technology you used and the people involved makes retrospectives massively more useful to other public servants looking to learn from what you did. Example: 18F did a kickass job sharing feedback they collected after piloting Github for procurement.

Include documentation

Related to the point above, including the specific documents you used (e.g., RFPs and job descriptions) is an easy way to allow others to leverage work you’ve done. The intent should never be for someone to blindly lift and reuse it. But docs are useful starting points for many people looking to build off the work done elsewhere. Example: Among the many things they do well, the UK’s Government Digital Service team provides job descriptions for all the roles on a service team.


Tell the “yeah, we wouldn’t recommend you do what we did” stories

Success stories are fun to write and fun to read. But it is just as important to share the things that didn’t work as you planned. What signs of impending doom should you be looking out for? What steps can you take at the outset of a project to improve the outcome? Did an experiment produce an unexpected result? Did you build something users love only to have it killed by elected officials? Learning from failure helps us anticipate a spectrum of outcomes and adjust our teams and approaches accordingly.


Adopt a standardized format

Using a consistent, standardized case study format acts as a checklist to make sure you include all the relevant information, helps your readers know where to find specific points, and provides a way of organizing content across case studies. For example, if your current project involves gnarly system integrations, you may want sample job descriptions for an API specialist. Rather than dig through various projects that might involve this role, you should be able to just search job descriptions for ones involving API expertise.


Make it discoverable

Google search isn’t good enough. Practitioners need to know where to look for this stuff, and when they search, they need to predictably surface useful information. This involves a single point of entry into the content, and an underlying tagging structure that allows users to find what they need. Ever used Pinterest? You can search for the most obscure combination of ingredients like “jalapeno lobster avocado toast” and get a mountain of delicious images and enough recipes to fill a book, albeit a highly specific one.

A search for “city website redesign drupal” should yield equally plentiful and relevant results.

So how do we plant the seeds to make this happen?

One of the best parts of working in government digital services is its exceptionally collaborative nature. I have kindred spirits from Gilbert, AZ to Somerville, MA working hard to solve the same problems we all face, and eagerly offering support and sharing what they’ve tried. But as practitioners, our knowledge shouldn’t be limited to the insights from those in our direct network.

I know there are many people thinking about this problem, and there are efforts underway to help us share and learn from each other on Medium and at assorted convenings that are sprouting up. If we don’t invest in making it easier to build wisdom, teams are stuck rediscovering each other’s successes and mistakes. We know that, and yet we’re not seeing it in practice. But it’s an investment our movement should make, and I’d love to get to work with anyone interested.