How to Make Government Less Like the DMV
“You need that sort of annoying, persistent obsession”
Government programs can be notoriously bureaucratic and deadening, and none more so than job centers. In popular culture, they’re second only to the DMV for their anti-human qualities.
But they don’t have to be this way. Virginia Hamilton led the deployment of human-centered design in the Department of Labor (DOL), introducing Apple Store-style customer focus and helping the 17,000-person organization run more efficiently. This helped DOL-funded programs and offices, such as American Jobs Centers, more effectively support those seeking employment assistance.
What You’ll Learn
What might good handwriting win you?
What is institutional body language, and how do you fix it?
How does risk-taking make an organization more risk-tolerant?
How do you run a 52-person board meeting effectively?
Hamilton worked as a regional administrator for the Department of Labor, founded and directed the California Workforce Association, and was the Chief of Office of Workforce Policy for the California Employment Development Department. She advises on effective facilitation and design through her Make Fast Studio consultancy.
You were the West Coast regional administrator at the U.S. Department of Labor from 2012 to 2017. Tell me about the nuts and bolts of that role.
So I’ll be a little bit more precise. The DOL has lots of different agencies within it, and I was in the Employment and Training Administration. My work was primarily oversight of the programs and grants that ran through that agency. Eighty-five percent of the funding goes from the Department of Labor down to the states. My region was eight states from Alaska down to Hawaii, and four territories in the Pacific – the best region in the country. Under my oversight were the unemployment insurance program, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is a job training program, YouthBuild, migrant seasonal farmworker programs, and some smaller grant programs that sometimes went to the state and sometimes to local governments.
By way of background, the Department of Labor was founded to catch bad guys. It was started after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when 146 people died because of lack of safety standards. Then, under Frances Perkins, OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was created, and then later came MSHA (The Mine Safety and Health Administration). Most of the agencies within the Department of Labor are there for enforcement, to catch bad guys and protect workers' rights. Ours was a grant-making agency, which is stuck in the middle of the larger operation. It took me a while to figure out why this was the case.
The culture was very much focused on compliance. I had colleagues in other parts of the country, who had the same job as I did, who saw their job as making sure that the grants were being run properly, and when things went wrong, writing them up to make sure they got reports into DC. At the end of the year, my counterpart in another part of the country might have sent in 200 corrective action plans. And I'd have sent in seven, because I felt like my job was to actually help the people running these programs do better and do them right.
So if we got a call saying, “I think we're in trouble,” we didn't write it down in a report and send it back to DC. Instead we’d say, “Okay. How can we help you?” Most of my job was working with our states, making sure that they were complying with the law, but also trying to help them run these programs better and provide good services to people who were unemployed. I came in at the end of the recession, so there were still all sorts of problems with unemployment insurance systems, as I’m sure you read about in the paper. But I saw my job differently than some of my colleagues across the country did, if that makes sense.
For the layman who doesn’t understand the Department of Labor, what were the state programs that you were giving grants to?
The big one is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. That program stands on the shoulders of prior job training programs that started back in the ‘60s, which focused on helping vulnerable populations and people who faced barriers to employment get into job training programs and then into jobs. I ran one of those programs when I worked for the state of California, and I don’t know exactly how much money we’re talking about, but at the time it was about a billion dollar program.
The funding has gone down over the years. But it’s a substantial amount of money which goes to the state, and then to local governments who actually run the programs. The good ones will have lots of partnerships with other organizations and work closely with community colleges, welfare departments, and establish partnerships in the private sector to make sure that the training programs are actually connected to jobs.
So it’s not a matter of just getting money and running a small program, though some are bureaucratic and just do that. The good programs really think about supply and demand in their community and try to understand how the labor market works.
Tell me about the bog standard version of these programs. Who are the kinds of folks coming into those programs and what are the failure modes?
The programs that don't live up to their potential are run by well-meaning bureaucrats who get the money from the federal government, read the law, read the regulations, and do what they're supposed to do. They open their doors in the morning. People come in. They worry about their performance measures — they have to get a certain number of people jobs in a given year, keep track of how much money people are making and so on. They play to the bare minimum defined in the law.
If you were to boil it down to one thing, the big differentiator is that they see the Department of Labor, and not the people relying on the program, as their customer. They try to please the DOL instead of actually trying to understand who is walking through their doors, who in the community isn’t, and really trying to help them succeed in the labor market.
Are these programs actually placing the same number of people in jobs? Do they fail down the line? Do people not stay in their jobs as long because they weren't placed well?
In some cases they're getting people jobs, but they’re not getting them that first job that will then help them move up the ladder and then following those people across time. They get them a job, and they can check that off, and then those people come back in again. Many of those organizations are very transactional.
The good ones understand that in a given community, there's a growth industry sector, and they sit down and talk to employers and try to understand what skills they need. The best ones also work as an intermediary between the community colleges and employers. They say, “Okay. These are the skills that are needed. Let’s build a program so that we can get a pipeline of workers into industries that are growing and help people support themselves and their families.”
Where do American Job Centers fit into this? Are they what you’re talking about?
Yeah, they’re the people I’m talking about. So the administrative structure is that the DOL gets the money, it goes to the states, and from the state it goes down to local governments. The local governments have a workforce development board that oversees the local programs. All boards have a private-sector majority. The money flows through mayors and boards of supervisors. In some parts of the country, the Workforce Boards make decisions and guide the use of funds, while in other places, the government agency actually makes all the decisions and the Workforce Board is off to the side.
Some local governments actually use their board to better understand their community and labor markets. But every workforce board has at least one American Job Center (AJC), if not multiple. Los Angeles has 14, for example.
When I picture a government-run job center, I have an image of the worst features of the DMV. Is that fair?
It is fair. There's a term I learned a couple of years ago that I really love: institutional body language. Right before COVID, I walked into one of the job centers and there were signs on the door that said, “Absolutely no food and drink,” “We have a strict dress code.” And “you're being videotaped.” By the way, these are funky pieces of paper that are Scotch-taped to the glass. The institutional body language was like walking into a prison.
A lot of our human-centered design projects initially focused on just creating a better space for people to walk into. There are some great examples now, but a lot of them are just government offices and look like welfare, or the DMV. I taught a class last year, and we had a guy from the California DMV come in to talk about what he was doing to improve institutional body language. The people from the employment department looked at each other at the end of the class and said, “We used to be able to say, ‘At least we're not as bad as the DMV,’ but that may be changing.”
Can you briefly explain human-centered design for our readers? With AJCs, what are some examples of success stories?
At its core, human-centered design is a structured, replicable way to solve problems. In the case of government, rather than focusing on rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures, the typical stuff of oversight agencies, you start with what people need and what their motivations are. And so we're turning how government works on its head. Instead of getting the directive from the DOL that goes down to the state, that goes down to the county, that goes down to the AJC, and they do what's in the law, they're actually paying attention to who's walking in the door and what they need.
When we first started doing human-centered design, there was an AJC which was trying to serve more homeless youth. Young people were walking through the door, standing around, and then turning around and walking out. The AJC asked the security guard to participate in their design team and he said, “Everybody comes in, they’ve got all their stuff with them. There's no place to put it, so they walk out.” As a result of that insight from the security guard, they repurposed a supply closet up in the front and created a safe space for young people to come in and put their stuff.
That's a great example of design thinking at work. It's not complicated. It's not a big fancy change of everything. It's just paying attention to small details by using the brains, heart, and understanding of the people who are on the front lines and the customers themselves.
Can you give us another example?
Again, I’ll talk first about the physical space. I have a colleague at an AJC in Long Beach, California. In the parking lot for that center, instead of a sign that just says, “AJC,” (and they’re called something else in LA anyway), it says, “Good people and great jobs this way.” Think about the courage that it takes for someone who's unemployed to just walk into a government office in the first place. They're probably at the end of their rope. To see a sign like that makes a difference.
I have a million examples. Here’s another: When I was doing this work at the DOL, there were four different nonprofits in Tennessee that were part of this AJC system. In theory, someone could walk into any one of them and get the kinds of services that were being funded. The directors of these nonprofits wanted to improve customer experience, so they went and sat in each other's lobbies for two days, just to listen and watch what was happening. On the second day, one of the women told me she went home and wept. Because the only feedback she’d been getting from customers was from the people who were successful: “I got a job, I got into the community college program I wanted,” and so on.
What she heard in the lobby was that groups like hers were seen as gatekeepers of information and gatekeepers of services. Like, “Why did Santi get a referral, why did he get a job interview, and I didn't? How come Sarah talked to a coach and got enrolled in a community college program, and I didn't?” They had to rethink which problem they were trying to solve.
As it turns out, the problem they’re trying to solve is, “How do we become more transparent and communicate better to the people who are walking through the door? How do we help them understand why we're making the decisions we're making?” Which is a really different problem than just, “How do we make customers' experience better?”
It sounds like you're promoting and valuing a spirit of experimentation that might not be the norm.
You're right. We don't do it in government at all. Or rarely. We always say that we have to treat everybody the same way, but the truth of the matter is that we never do. Even if it’s the most regimented DMV. If they see an older woman who seems to know what she’s doing but she hasn’t filled out a form, they’ll say, “You can just come right back up to me.” People are always doing things differently, but we hold on to this myth of treating people exactly the same.
Experimentation is always scary. Bureaucracy is designed to have predictable results, to do things the same way, to reduce risk. And here we are saying, “Let's experiment.” Since leaving the DOL, I’ve been teaching design thinking to people in government, telling them, “We need to try stuff out. We need to develop prototypes and test them because it reduces risk.” It's paradoxical that by taking these risks, we're actually reducing risk.
For example, I was working in Detroit, and they realized that the people the customers first talked to when they came in the door were the least-trained people in the whole organization. As a result of our design process, we created what they called a “front desk academy.” We didn't design and develop the whole curriculum. We simply put together a one-page Word document that said, “This is what the front desk academy is going to look like, here's the content, here's when we're going to do it, and here's how we’re going to do it.” We just made the prototype, handed it to people at the front desk and to their managers. It made a difference, and it was a lot less risky than implementing it, which we often do as well.
Often, some politician in Sacramento or DC says, “I think we should do X,” and then we just go do it. But we’ve never actually run it past someone who is actually going to receive those services. That leads to failure, or if it doesn’t work for staff, they’ll create workarounds, or just not do it at all.
When you tried this kind of experimentation out on the West Coast and extended territories, were you protected by being physically far away from Washington, D.C.?
Totally. I was protected in a number of ways. I was working with IDEO, and they said, “We're doing amazing stuff out here, Let's go talk to the people in DC.” And I'm like, “Don't talk to anyone in DC because they will shut this s*** down.” I stayed under the radar for a long time.
I was also able to build a relationship with Tom Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor at the time, who protected me. He also wanted to improve DOL’s capacity for innovation, created an Innovation Council, and made me the Chair.
How did you win him over?
The first trip he took as Secretary of Labor was when the federal government was rolling out HealthCare.gov. He wanted to go to an American Job Center in Nevada and see how people were getting information about HealthCare.gov from different government agencies, including the AJCs. Because when people are unemployed, obviously, particularly in the United States, your health care is attached to your employment.
I met him there in Nevada. I'm chatty and friendly and we hit it off. When he would come to California he would occasionally take me on some of his trips to different job training organizations.
I decided that I wanted to do more than just my regular job, and I really wanted to leave a legacy. I have this artifact somewhere: I took a piece of paper, and I have good handwriting, and I wrote on the piece of paper — I very deliberately didn’t do a Word document or PowerPoint slide — the three things that I thought should be happening at our agency, the Employment and Training Administration. I wrote the current state of those three things, in terms of what was happening both internally and externally with our customers, and three recommendations for things we should be doing differently, and I handed it to him when we were sitting in a car.
I think that was a pivotal point because he saw me as someone who was thinking much bigger than my job, thinking about the potential of our programs and about the Department of Labor, and that I had some ideas about how to actually do it.
I teach how to design and facilitate good meetings. And the meetings at DOL were terrible. You sit around and everybody talks to their boss about what they're doing, and it's just boring and stupid. In self-defense from these meetings, I started staying overnight in DC when I would go there for work, and I told the people I worked with, “I'm going to teach a four-hour class on how to design and facilitate meetings.”
It caught on. I taught my immediate colleagues and they told their friends. Pretty soon there were a couple of senior people from the secretary’s office who came to the meetings. As a result I was starting to get tapped by the secretary's office to facilitate high-stakes meetings with stakeholders and to help different agencies, not just my own, do strategic planning and run better meetings. I ended up on a couple of tiger teams when things were going wrong.
I have really good process skills, and at the end of the day, good process outperforms best practice. People have to discover their own way, and once they do and they participate in it, there will be buy in and they’ll actually get something done. If you just lift a best practice from somewhere else and plop it in, there’s no ownership. It may not work at all. Something that works in Fresno is not gonna work in San Francisco. And so I’m a total process geek. That’s what human-centered design is, too. It’s just process.
What makes you good at facilitating meetings?
I'm from New York, and I'm bossy. So I've always been able to facilitate a meeting because I was always the one willing to stand up in front of the room. I wasn't scared of people. I was always facilitating meetings by the seat of my pants and instinct. When I was running my nonprofit, the California Workforce Association, I went around and very deliberately sought out different skills, methods, and ways in which people could run good meetings. Because I had a 52-person board of directors.
Usually in our meetings, five people would talk. Then I would get out into the hallway, and someone would go, “I was thinking we should have done this and this,” and I’m like, “Why didn’t you say that?” They’d say, “It’s clear that only Fred, Susan, Lee, and Robert talk in these meetings,” or, “I’m new, I don't want to look like an idiot,” or, “I'm an introvert and I'm never going to talk in front of 50 people.” There are lots of reasons why people don't participate in meetings, and part of the reason is that they're badly run. But I discovered a set of methods that are about participatory leadership, about how to run a meeting in a way that turns your culture into a culture in which every voice is heard and informed opinions matter.
Why and how did you ever have a board of more than 50 people? That seems unusually large.
It was. I worked for the state for 17 years, and we had oversight of these same job training programs that I'm talking about. And I felt like the local boards had no political power, and that they were being stepped all over by the state. So I quit the state and the program I was running and started my nonprofit – the California Workforce Association – with all the local boards. There happened to be 52 in California at the time, and they became my board of directors. I worked for them, with them for about 15 years doing advocacy, lobbying, capacity building, and creating a different vision of where the boards could go. I've always had it in my blood. I walk into a thing, a place, and I ask, “How can I do this better?” It's just always been there, and I’m not afraid of people.
Talk to me about measurement of the effectiveness and success of human-centered design. Are you doing A/B testing and measuring results?
The first thing I'd say is that on my computer, I have a Post-it that reads, “What are you being measured by and is it in the best interest of our customer?” I think our measurement system and the workforce system cause really pernicious results. Because, honestly, if I've got to meet my numbers, and I've got a group of people who've just been laid off because of COVID but they have work experience and they know how to get up on time and tie their shoelaces, and I've got another group of people who come from intergenerational poverty and no one they know has ever had a job, who am I going to choose to go into my programs? I'm going to choose the first group. It creates these perverse incentives. If we really are customer-focused, human-focused, we're going to have to start to think about a different way of measuring in government. I read a quote the other day that said, ”Once a measurement becomes a goal, it's lost its value,” or something to that effect.
Goodhart's law? "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure"?
That’s it. In terms of the measurement of design thinking and having people use it, I don't know how to do A/B testing. I know how to do A/B testing if you're using behavioral design to change what a form looks like or wording on a document. There are a million academics out there asking the same question, which is, “How do you evaluate, what's the ROI, blah blah blah.” They’re trying to understand whether success is a matter of mindset or skills, which comes first. For me, if someone works in government and they get a new appropriation or a new program to administer, if their first instinct is, “How do we go talk to the people that this is going to affect?” I feel like I've won. That sounds kind of woo, but I think a lot of the evaluation would, in some sense, have to be qualitative.
This goes back to institutional body language. If we’re thinking about how it affects the customer, then we've made that culture change in a way that will sustain over time. Do people feel they are respected when they walk into a government office? Do they feel they belong there? Are they treated with dignity?
I don't know how to measure it. I'm not an academic, this is all instinct. I found a picture of my team in 1997, when I was still working for the state, and in it they are standing around in a hotel room and putting all these sticky notes up on the wall, grouping them together. I didn't learn how to do that. I just knew we needed to get this thing done, and that felt like the right way to do it.
You hired IDEO, a global design agency, for a contract to help think through design. How normal is it in the federal government to hire an outside design agency?
Super not normal, at my level and in my role. This was toward the end of the recession and here were all these long-term unemployed people coming into the AJCs. Our AJCs did not have familiarity with how to deal with this group of people. They were older, they were skilled, they played by all the rules, and they were being discriminated against. They weren't getting hired. And that was a very different population than the usual population that was walking into the AJCs, which were more through this legacy of poverty programs, frankly.
So this group of people was coming in and we didn't know what to do. I'd seen a ABC Nightline segment by Ted Koppel on designing a shopping cart and my mind was blown. I was an anthropology major, so maybe that had something to do with it, but they brought in this diverse group of people to try to figure out how to change a shopping cart. And I started thinking about the new group of people approaching the AJCs and I understood that we did not know how to serve them well. I made a cold call to IDEO and said, “I've got $34.11 in my budget.” We had a very small amount of money at our discretion in each of the regions, to provide training for our staff and to do very small things. I said, “I want to work with you,” and they were interested. Long-term unemployment was a hot topic at the time.
IDEO put together the work plan for our project, which was on the order of days. Their projects are usually weeks and months and years, and the person who was doing the logistical administrative work came in and said, “You're talking about weeks or months here, aren't you?” “No, this is days.'' I think we had a six-day contract with them. I just said, “Don't tell anybody.” I mean, it wasn’t illegal, but it wasn't what most people spend their money on.
I have a note here to ask you about the speed dating model at a Sacramento office.
One of the things we discovered through customer research, which sounds like a penetrating glimpse into the obvious, was that these long-term unemployed people were walking in with really different emotional states. And yet we were putting them all through the same process. Say I come in and I'm about to lose my house or my apartment or my car. In that state, I certainly don't need to go to a workshop on how to use LinkedIn and network. I don't even need a job — I need money.
And that's really different from someone who comes in and says they put two hundred resumes into the black hole of the Internet and never got anything back. And that's really different from someone who lost a job they never really liked in the first place and they're trying to figure out what else to do. Those people are different, and their emotional states are really different.
We used to put everybody through the same orientation, and everyone paid attention for maybe three minutes out of an hour. So in Sacramento and some other places, they switched to a triage model where they'd set up different stations in their office, and they would do this speed dating.
The staff would ask, “What are you here for?” If the person said, “I'm here because I'm running out of my unemployment insurance and I need a job,” they’d know to send them to someone to talk for 15 minutes about the kinds of services that were available. Maybe they're going to need to apply for food stamps, which this person would never have thought of in a million years because they've never been unemployed. It was set up in a totally different way, much more like an Apple Store where there's someone at the front asking, “Why are you here?” and directing you to a specialist for a short period of time, and that person figures out what the treatment should be.
How optimistic are you about being able to introduce changes like that across the DOL, across AJCs?
I know it sounds braggy to say, but I really was the person who brought this to DOL. No one else was talking about human-centered design. When I started out, when I gave a speech and had people raise their hands if they knew about human-centered design, out of a thousand people, three would raise their hand. Now, many organizations, including foundations such as The James Irvine Foundation and The National Fund for Workforce Solutions, are funding projects using human-centered design in the workforce system.
States have come to me to say, “We want to learn human-centered design,” and I've taught classes. There is a much larger appetite now, and I am optimistic that it will continue to grow. There's a lot more interest across government in using design thinking to make things work better. When I go in and teach, in almost every instance there will be at least one person who will come to me and say, “Thank you. I had forgotten why I was here in the first place. I got drowned in bureaucracy and reporting and forms. Being able to just listen to customers and actually go through this process reconnected me to my mission and why I took this job in the first place.”
I believe that most people in government really want to do better, and they just don’t know how. If you give them the skills, they’ll keep using them. I got an email a day ago from a woman who went through a training program a year ago, and she said that she still uses some of the tools we covered almost every week. Sure, some people want to retire without having to do much, but a lot of people really care about outcomes and the people they serve. They just don’t have permission to try anything new or the infrastructure in which to raise new ideas. They don’t have these sort of practical process skills. How do you do an empathy interview? How do you do your journey map? How do you develop insights from what you’ve learned from your customers? You can learn how to do these things in an hour.
Anything else that I should have asked you about?
One thing. I’m very interested in how we can use design thinking for policy. I’ll be teaching a class for the California state workforce board that designs all of the programs and develops policy for these funds, and we’ll apply design thinking to that.
I've got another project where I have people doing policy scavenger hunts, where they're taking a policy and trying to trace where it came from and see whether it's still even useful or appropriate or legal. And then asking, "Okay, if we go back to the start, is there some reason we have to have this policy? How can we rethink it through the eyes of our customer?”
Is any of that coursework publicly available?
Yes. InnovateUS is on a mission to provide free training on innovation and modern government to any public servant, and I worked on a 20-video asynchronous course on human-centered design for them.
You shared a few broadly applicable lessons: how to run meetings, the importance of finding political cover. Are there any others you want to leave readers with?
Permission is really important. Joe Biden put out an Executive Order in December 2021 that says any time you're using federal funds, you should be including the people who are being affected by the product, service, or program in the design of that. That's a permission document.
When I was at the Department of Labor, I was at a conference and someone said, “What happens when the Government Accountability Office or the Office of the Inspector General comes and looks at what we're doing when we're experimenting?” And I got out from behind the podium and I said, “My name is Virginia Hamilton. I'm the regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor. You have my permission to experiment to make customers' experience better.” And people gave me a standing ovation. It was so goofy.
That is goofy.
The headline is about using federal funds to help people get better outcomes and create a better customer experience in government agencies, but you need permission. You also need to learn the skills. It’s intuitive for some people, but for others, you need to have ongoing, refreshed, engaging training.
You also need to have that sort of annoying, persistent obsession. People see me coming and they say, “F***, there’s Virginia. She’s going to talk about design again, and ‘Is this gonna help our customers?’” But you need to have that passion, in some form.
Thanks to Rita Sokolova for her edits for clarity on this transcript.
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