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NAPA Career Profile: Marc Hébert, PhD

Hebert1Marc Hébert is a design anthropologist for the City and County of San Francisco. He works in the Human Services Agency’s (HSA) newly created Innovation Office. His journey here started while earning a PhD in Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida. Early in his graduate training, he volunteered at a community organization that uses computer and Internet technologies to encourage urban youth towards higher education in technology-related fields. The experience fed Hébert’s interest with how design, the Internet and program evaluation shape how the public interacts with government policies. Today, he works to improve how HSA clients and employees experience service delivery and outcomes.


“Why can’t public services be so well designed and successful that our colleagues in nonprofit organizations and industry look to government regularly for inspiration and collaboration? How can we make this a reality? I feel these sorts of questions are widely shared within the civic innovation space, which is well suited for design anthropologists. I think about design anthropology as an approach to improve the way people experience things, services and spaces.


Things, for me, include public information, forms and websites, such as EatFresh.org, designed to help Food Stamps/SNAP recipients cook nutritiously on a budget. The Moroccan Carrot Salad is dynamite!


‘Services’ involve experiences that are public-facing (e.g., applying for human services) and on the backend (e.g., internal government processes). This also involves meeting the intended outcomes or results from these services for both clients and government employees. ‘Spaces’ include the layout of lobbies so people navigate through them quicker and find them more inviting.


Experience maps are a helpful way to see the current situation, specifically, how multiple stakeholders interact with things, services and spaces across different channels of communication (i.e., in person, over the phone, online, etc.). These maps visualize the actions clients and employees take when trying to access and provide a service as well as how they feel at each step along the way (stressing empathy and others’ perspectives). The amount of time these stakeholders take to complete each step and obstacles to improve the service experience are also included. Such visualizations provide context around a problem and serve as benchmarks to measure success after a change has been made. For more details, see the great work of Andy Polaine, Lavrans Løvlie & Ben Reason discussed on the HSA Innovation Office blog.


In companies and nonprofits, the type of work we are doing in HSA is known as “user experience (UX),” among other things. I’m experimenting with combining techniques found in Human-Centered Design broadly defined and Lean (Toyota Production System) with anthropological theory and methods.

Hebert4A recent use of an anthropological method involved pile sorting of 100+ frequently asked questions by clients of the HSA Medi-Cal (Medicaid) program to create an FAQ for clients, employees and community partners.


Individually, Design and Lean have been proven successful within various Human Services Agencies around the country, including the counties of Denver, Los Angeles and Ventura. Uniting them with design anthropology can make innovating within government even better…at least that’s my take, and I’m open to feedback from readers if they want to send it through my LinkedIn or Twitter.


In case you’re wondering, the San Francisco Human Services Agency (HSA) has about 2,000 employees serving around 150,000 people through nearly two-dozen programs. I get to work with teams of people within one or more of these programs who request help with making internal communication more effective, or bettering the quality and consistency in information given to clients or improving how the public experiences the design of our lobbies. For now, teams are composed of employees with various perspectives on the issue, from program directors and managers to frontline employees and administrative assistants. Clients and community partners play an important part in projects by getting their feedback and focusing on how the changes we make impact them.


The HSA Innovation Office is mainly a three-person team: my boss is the bureaucratic ninja directing many different projects adeptly, including the Office. We also have stellar administrative support from a logistics guru who gives generously of her time that is spread across helping multiple people. The vision and leadership of the Agency’s Executive Director also guides our work. I see myself as getting to do the really fun stuff by managing the day-to-day operations of the Office by working with colleagues, clients and community partners to create meaningful changes. HSA employees also develop a toolkit to innovate solutions to other problems after we work together. Part of this toolkit is using a systematic approach (shown below) to clarify a problem, research it, visualize these data with whiteboards and sticky notes, experiment with prospective solutions, and then do follow ups with the team in 30, 60 and 90 days to ensure implementation and ownership of tasks.


This work is less about ‘bringing’ innovation to government and more about championing existing innovators and other colleagues seeking positive changes. For example, we’re trying to understand better ways of repurposing what colleagues are already doing creatively in one part of the Agency and trying to apply it another part. Doing so reduces communication silos in a productive way. Another initiative is to encourage meetups among other City employees and user-experience (UX) designers outside of government. We gather periodically to share ideas, methods or get feedback on our projects. Readers interested in attending these meetups should reach out to me as well.”


Hébert notes that his approach to design research has also been influenced by the practical application of user experience worldwide.


Hebert6“The work of Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall sparked my interest in design anthropology eight years ago. I’d never heard of it before reading her work. As my curiosity into this area deepened, I focused my PhD research on how Floridians experience the design of an online application process for public assistance with food and health care. Thanks to the National Science Foundation’s East-Asian and Pacific Summer Institute program, I was also able to do research in Melbourne, Australia. There, I learned a lot from Dori at the Swinburne University of Technology, Faculty of Design. She gave generously of her time to answer what must have been a gazillion questions. Today, my understanding of design anthropology blends insights from the study of public policy, technology, evaluation and material culture. I also rely on practices used by UX professionals (see resources below) and other governments.


Besides the U.S. counties mentioned previously, further sources of inspiration include the U.K. Government Digital Service, the MindLab in Denmark, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the U.S. General Services Administration. Earlier this month the news broke that the U.S. Digital Service is also being created, with the goal of improving the public’s experience with federal government services. Things are getting exciting! There are UX and innovation labs across national, state and city governments globally. There is much to learn from our colleagues worldwide.”


Though Hébert credits serendipity as one factor in his success, it also involved strategic planning that enabled him to identify the type of work he wanted to do and the steps and opportunities he needed to get there.


Hebert7“I was taking a break one day by watching TED talks – admittedly nerdy break time – and saw a talk by the founder of Code for America (CfA), Jen Pahlka, and was hooked! She shared the work CfA fellows were doing with local governments across the country to create empathetic and practical public services. At the time, I was writing in my dissertation about the faces of my research participants, twisted in suffering and frustration, as they attempted to navigate Florida’s online application process for food stamps and Medicaid. These clients couldn’t speak to people on the phone. They didn’t understand confusing letters that came in the mail. They couldn’t use a computer. Jen’s talk was an invitation to do something about it, so I applied for the fellowship and couldn’t believe I got in! It must have been that oversized tweed jacket during the video interview. Who doesn’t like elbow patches? But I digress.


The CfA fellowship typically places a web developer, designer, and project manager or UX researcher together on a three-person team. I was on the only four-person team. My teammates are sharp and caring individuals. I learned a lot from them. They challenged me to research quicker and present my findings more accessibly. We partnered with my current employer, HSA, to reduce “churn.” This is HSA-speak for people who receive services, stop receiving services, and then resume those services.


Hebert8We followed the iterative approach to create web applications outlined in the Lean Startup (Eric Ries, 2011). Lots of folks are also using ‘Agile’ today to great success. As CfA Fellows, we worked with lots of stakeholders to create a text message notification system for clients in multiple languages. The idea was to notify them with a simple text—before they were dropped from a program. Our efforts did not replace the existing approach of notifying clients with a mailed notice. We added an additional layer that meets clients where they are so they could take action ahead of time.”


The hard work of Hébert and his team at Code for America led right into his current position at Human Services Agency. Design research remains most closely associated with the corporate world; social service nonprofits and governments have historically lagged behind in “innovation.” They are, however, increasingly adopting a more qualitative and anthropological approach to improvement.


“Anthropology permeates my job. There is no shortage of demonstrating why and how a holistic approach to solving problems is critical. For example, I’m currently working to improve how we evaluate clients’ experiences across programs. An important part of this effort is encouraging participant observation and qualitative data to understand how people apply for services and what it feels like for them at every step in the application and recertification process. For example, my former CfA teammate, Jacob Solomon, did an incredible job of visualizing this experience through an interactive time map of applying for food stamps.


Anthropology also taught me how to research systematically from a scientific and humanistic approach (special shout out to USF and SIRD). Methodology is a combination of technique and theory. I’m calling attention in my job to using qualitative data for understanding clients’ experience and developing broader understandings of “Return on Investment” metrics to improve how programs and policies are designed based on this research. I’m also sharing with other government employees how to do UX methods to sustain this effort.


Hebert9Those outside of anthropology departments with years of UX expertise have helped me to further translate my applied training to a non-academic environment. Maybe these resources will also be of interest to NAPA readers: Measuring the User Experience by Tom Tullis and Bill Albert, Universal Methods of Design by Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society by Christian Bason, and anything by Steve Krug, Jared Spool and Rosenfeld Media. Following these authors on Twitter helps me to keep up with what they are reading. Articles from alistapart.com, uxbooth.com and nngroup.com/articles/ are worth checking out, and of course subscribing to the AnthroDesign Yahoo! Listserv. All these resources can be overwhelming, so if you don’t have much time or know where to start, then spend five minutes clicking through the SlideShare of Erika Hall’s book Just Enough Research. It’s clear, funny and a great intro to UX. I’ve also benefitted from attending conferences with different types of practitioners (UX Week, EPIC and Overlap) as well as hackathons (Global GovJam, Code Across, and the National Day of Civic Hacking).”


Responding to the notion that many anthropologists today graduate with a clear idea of the contributions they want to make in society but uncertain of how to get there, Hébert suggests one alternative for new graduates is to create their own post-doc experience. It can allow for the application and transition of skills to a non-university environment while exploring a new career.


*The views expressed here are Marc’s alone and do not represent the City and County of San Francisco, the Human Services Agency or its Innovation Office.




HSA Innovation Office Blog: http://sfhsainnovationoffice.tumblr.com/


Come Hack With Me: Adapting Anthropological Training to Work in Civic Innovation (2014). Practicing Anthropology 36(2):32-36. http://sfaa.metapress.com/content/405j1uvvn8584768/?p=fbde860088d840aea9b97da2d27264bc&pi=8


E-Government Success Factors and Measures: Theories, Concepts, and Methodologies. (2013) J. Ramon Gil-Garcia, ed. Anthropological Thinking about E-Government Evaluation. IGI Global. http://www.igi-global.com/chapter/anthropological-thinking-government-evaluation/77447

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