Cheow Hoe Chan, Government Chief Innovation Officer of Singapore, on user-centered design

“One thing I always tell people: In the public sector, you can’t choose your customer. In the private sector you can, focusing on customers that have the most economic value to you,” said Chan. “But when you come into the government, you realize that you have to deal with everyone — from the very digitally inclined people, to the people that find it very difficult to even log in to a computer. So whatever you launch is never a case of one-size-fits-all — user-experience design is crucial.”

Despite the obstacles still ahead in modernizing government technology, Chan is optimistic about the future: “All my friends said I was crazy when I said I was going to work in government, because they felt I wouldn’t get anything done; but when I came in I was really surprised by how much we got done in two years. I want to demonstrate that all these things are possible in government.”

Jay Nath, San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer, on civic tech and cross-sector collaboration

“We’re trying to figure out, ‘How do government agencies become a resource instead of a hindrance?’” said Nath. “I think we can learn a lot from entrepreneurs; we can take their entrepreneurial spirit, their agile methodologies, user-centered design methods, and use it to improve public services.”

He sees many opportunities to leverage the latest in design thinking and open innovation in building the next generation of government services.

Nath hopes to instill a “test-and-learn” mindset in those working in government settings (with traditionally relatively risk-averse cultures) by giving them the ability to take “small bets” — experimenting with pilots before committing entirely to new programs, instilling confidence around buying or building technology products.

Tina Lee, Founder of Mothercoders, on the importance of women in tech

Lee explained some of these policies, including a lack of a national paid family leave program or a subsidized childcare system in the U.S.; a dual-income earning families incurring penalties from the tax system; pre-school not being universal; and schools letting out at 3pm and closing down all summer.

Additionally, workforce development programs largely come without considerations for job seekers with childcare constraints, leaving mothers with the message: “You’re on your own.”

Lee hopes that in the future, not only will our culture grow more inclusive of women in technology, but more policies will be implemented to assist working parents in building their skill sets throughout their careers.

“Our policies don’t match the needs of our society, and it will hurt our economic development,” Lee said. “We are moving from the industrial era to the innovation era. If we don’t solve this problem, it’s not only the industry that goes down — our whole society will.”

Scott Mauvais, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft, on developing for urban environments

Cities are in it for the long haul and they are working along longer timelines and for larger constituencies than many people realize. They are using infrastructure that is a few decades, sometimes generations, older than the communities in which they serve. Cities can’t pick their market — they have to serve everyone. Given the constraints of local government, they’re doing a great job. That said, there are lots of legacy procedures and policies that are hard to evolve over time; city workers would like to be more efficient, but the system often prevents that.

Harvard Kennedy School’s Nicolas Miailhe on the transformative power of tech in policy

To him, global economic systems have generated huge improvements in quality of life worldwide over the past century guided by progress in science and technology — “but the market cannot do it alone.”

The rise of technology has been and will continue to be guided by massive long-term, high-risk capital which only governments are able to mobilize, he says.

“Think of computing, the Internet, the Human Genome Project, GPS, or space exploration. None of these major techno-scientific endeavors would have been possible without government!” noted Miailhe. “As our understanding and control over these elements dramatically increases in the coming decades, our governments will be confronted with an array of crucial ethical questions and policy choices.”

A social entrepreneur passionate about the transformational power of innovation and technology, Miailhe co-founded the People for Global Transformation (PGT) — a non-profit interdisciplinary think-and-do tank centered on bringing about “a generational shift in policy thinking to respond to the 21st century challenges.”

Marci Harris, Founder of POPVOX, on the future of civic engagement

“In the public and political space, understanding that you can be effective is a first step to actually being effective. It’s so easy to become disillusioned if you think you can’t impact issues, if you’ve never seen how much power you can have,” she said. “We are the government, and the government is us — it’s not some distant thing that we can’t control.”

While sometimes it seems as if one must “go outside the fishbowl of government to get anything done,” Harris says it’s difficult but not impossible to bring about real change: “and herculean efforts are being made at all levels, with tremendous results.”

“Be careful of anyone telling you that the system is too broken, so you shouldn’t bother,” Harris noted. “It’s understandable that young people default to cynicism, but they have extremely powerful voices. We have to use our voices. We have the power to decide who we are as a country.”

Ian Kalin, Chief Data Officer at US Department of Commerce, on the value of accessing critical information

While he sees information as a kind of currency, “data itself is pretty useless,” Kalin says; to him, “it’s all about what you do with the data that makes it valuable.”

“My work builds on a commitment to finding ways to leverage modern resources to combat income inequality, to better understand how to get healthy food to children who need it, to revolutionize education systems, support systems and transportation systems — all using technology that is, by and largely, entirely normal in other sectors,” says Kalin, “but by its very existence, could be revolutionary in the public sector.”

Tilly Chang, Executive Director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, on the evolution of transit

Tilly Chang has been the Executive Director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA) since 2013; during her time in the position, she has seen an “exponential” increase in ridership on Bay Area Regional Transit (BART), Caltrain, and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) systems.

While Chang is working on long-term expansion plans and demand management strategies such as shifting some travelers to certain modes of transportation in different time periods, she also believes that cross-sector collaboration and the adoption of new technologies will be crucial in solving capacity issues in public transportation.

“We’re working to raise revenues and increase capacity, but it’s going to take time,” said Chang. “New technologies are opening up options — and they are testing some of our policy frameworks, but I believe our policy frameworks are quite durable.”

Dan Parham, Founder & CEO of Neighborland, on the future of community participation

“If you think the world is perfect, then don’t worry about getting engaged,” said Parham. “But if you want to see things improve, the only thing to do besides work for the government is to get engaged. We want people to realize that this is really their space.”

Public space is difficult to design for, Parham explained, because creative control decides what you’re allowed to do: “Existing processes and institutions are tough to overcome; the city owns the space, and represents the residents.”

“Everyone feels like they have a stake in it — and they do. And that’s what makes it difficult, from a design perspective,” Parham said. “It’s hard designing for everyone. How are you going to be representative, qualitatively and quantitatively?”

Code for America’s Efrem Bycer on transforming government through technology

“Government should be simple, effective, and easy to use — we stand to improve a lot of peoples’ lives,” Bycer said. “But ultimately, if you want it to work, it requires a system that meets their needs, not one in the abstract.”

Bycer believes combining government with technology and software can create opportunities to put people first: “We need incorporate their feedback, to design for the user and get better results.”

Projects at CfA include “GetCalFresh,” an app which makes it easier for people to apply for food assistance in the state; “Clear My Record,” a program which gives those with low-level criminal records “a second chance to get jobs and housing by clearing past convictions”; and “ClientComm,”a program for case managers to keep individuals struggling to stay out of jail due to missing court appearances compliant, by checking in with them often.

San Francisco City Administrator Naomi Kelly on streamlining civic processes

“We’re constantly looking at how we can improve and streamline our processes,” said Kelly of her work for the city. “Part of the reason we’re looking to create a digital services team — which began as a public service initiative — is we want to know, ‘How difficult is it to access and get services from the government? How can we make that easier?’”

Simple day-to-day requests received by Kelly’s office, such as requesting a birth or marriage certificate, could be made much more efficient by bringing the processes online.

Kelly noted the challenge in navigating large data systems, where information collection and organization can vary from being very sophisticated to almost nonexistent.

John Keisler, Innovation Team Director for the City of Long Beach, on leveraging private-public partnerships

Its first focus is economic development: advising the city on how best to stimulate growth, create jobs, and leverage city resources —including through the online delivery of city services.

“By focusing on the user, we can push government programs to be more successful and resilient,” Keisler explained. “Hopefully, by working collaboratively with the private sector, using a user-centered design focus, the government will no longer just be in the role of regulator, but can actually strengthen the competitiveness and long-term success of the small businessperson.”

Tom DeCaigny, Director of Cultural Affairs for the City and County of San Francisco, on keeping artists in the city

“We want San Francisco to remain the draw for creativity that it has been over the years,” said DeCaigny. “We have a robust arts community — some of the most incredible arts organizations in the world. We still have more arts nonprofits, per capita, than any other city in the country.”

Countering rapid gentrification, DeCaigny and the City are engaging in a process of “creative place-keeping” — making sure smart investments are made to maintain affordability for people living at every income level and maximizing access to arts and culture in every neighborhood.

Specifically, they are working to help artists and arts workers access the City’s “affordable housing pipeline,” providing technical assistance and support services so artists can income qualify and take advantage of various affordable housing programs funded by the City.

Kiran Jain, Chief Resiliency Officer for the City of Oakland, on the importance of regional alliances

As its Chief Resilience Officer, Kiran Jain works at the intersection of critical issues in the City of Oakland — including access to housing and jobs, community safety, reliable public infrastructure and the city’s ability to recover quickly from adversity.

“We need to look at government at the systems level, paying attention to all those things that make your ecosystem of a local government work,” said Jain. “That’s access to jobs, access to housing, access to capital for economic growth; safe and secure neighborhoods; it’s also that robust infrastructure to withstand shocks such as earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters.”

Sonny Hashmi, Managing Director, Global Government at Box

“In the digital world, we have to be more demanding of government to be more inclusive and open about their data and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs),” he explained. “We should try to understand the unique problems experienced by government, and build a better environment for government agencies to feel more empowered and comfortable opening their information.”

Despite wide disparities in the levels of technology adoption across agencies, Hashmi feels that government services are ultimately being held back by an institutional inability to quickly embrace technology solutions.

In order to resolve the issue, Hashmi believes that barriers between government and business need to be broken.