“A leader is the person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself”

Lessons about leadership and civic innovation from Michelle Thong at Code for America Summit

Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts highlighting the lessons we learned about designing better government Code for America Summit 2019.

If you’d told Michelle Thong five years ago that she would someday be leading the digital services strategy for America’s 10th largest city, she never would have believed you. At the time, she had recently gotten a job at San Jose City Hall and co-founded the city’s first Code for America Brigade, Code for San Jose—cultivating a community of people to talk to about civic innovation.

“To design better government, we need connection to a strong community of practice. To design better government, we need courage to confront what's hard about this work.”

She got the opportunity to start doing civic innovation as her day job when San Jose’s city manager decided to start an innovation team. But they faced a challenge: how would they make an impact on 1 million residents with a team of just four people out of the city’s more than 6,000 employees? They embraced their role as multipliers and enablers of other departments, encouraging them to view innovation as core to their mission rather than something on the fringe. And they identified three essential habits they wanted to build across the entire city government: champion the customer, learn through data, and iterate to improve.

With the foundation of those habits, Michelle was able to spearhead the transformation of an essential government service. Through extensive user research and discovery sprints, San Jose redesigned their 311 app to be truly inclusive of the city’s diverse residents. And Michelle was able to turn a digital services team from an imaginary idea in her head to a funded body of work and pilot team in the city government.

“Designing better government means that [a digital service] is inclusive of all of the city’s residents”

At Summit, Michelle spoke about finding the courage to be a leader for her city, to push things forward with big, bold decisions and with mundane, everyday tasks. She closed by posing the question to her fellow attendees: “How will being at Summit this week help you find courage and connection? And how will you inspire and sustain others along the way?”

To see Michelle’s presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.


Do you remember what you were doing five years ago? How have your ideas about changing government evolved since then? I remember exactly what I was doing five years ago today. Here I am with Code for San Jose Co-founder, Caitlin Gallagher. We had just finished hosting Code for San Jose’s first ever national day of civic hacking, one of 98 events across the country that day. You can see the exhilaration beaming off our faces. We were brand new Brigade captains at the beginning of a new adventure. The Code for America Network represented everything that was exciting to me about this emerging field of civic technology.

If a fairy godmother had appeared to me that day and told me that one day I would be leading the digital services strategy for America’s 10th largest city, I would have started floating. Now, let’s fast forward to a coaching session two months ago when I was grappling with new challenges in my current role. My coach told me to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and describe what came to mind.

This is the image that came to me. Alone in a desert. No shelter or relief in sight. The feeling no one is coming. It’s up to me. You know the Facebook 10 year challenge? If I had a civic tech five year challenge, this is what it would look like. I would love to see your civic tech five or 10 year challenges too. Feel free to tweet them at me. Now I know this looks bleak, but what I’ve discovered over the past five years is that the reality of our work encompasses the emotions in both these images.

On the one hand, optimism and energy. On the other hand, lonely, slow work, making progress one step at a time. On the one hand, connection with a network, a community of practitioners who inspire us to take action and try new approaches. On the other hand, digging teeth into ourselves to find the courage to lead change in our own organizations. We need to acknowledge both these aspects when we talk about designing better government. I’d like to share a few stories about how key moments of connection and courage have shaped my path over the past five years.

Chapter One: the call to adventure. This is the story of how I found my way to the mission of making government work better. Back in 2013 I was toiling away as an urban planning consultant doing economic data analysis, but as much as I loved creating beautiful Excel models and then packaging them up into PDF reports for our government clients, I started to feel that there had to be a better way for governments to learn from data. I heard the call to adventure when I walked into my first civic hacking event organized by OpenOakland, a Code for America Brigade. The event called City Camp Oakland was about bringing the community together to tackle civic issues and although we gathered in formal spaces at city hall, the open structure and collaborative spirit were unlike anything I had experienced before.

Sessions on everything from open data to equitable government were crowdsourced on Post-It notes and the agenda was developed on a whiteboard in real time. The conversations were welcoming, spirited, and filled with a sense of invention. I decided I was ready to commit, so I got myself a job at San Jose City Hall. It was a leap of faith betting on the potential to make impact in local government in a diverse future oriented city. But there was one problem. There wasn’t a Code for America Brigade in San Jose. Where could I find a community of people to talk with about civic innovation?

Being connected through OpenOakland to a nationwide network inspired me and my co-founder, Caitlin, to take action with Brigades forming all over the country, it became obvious that if we wanted to attend a civic hack night in our own city, we would need to start Code for San Jose. We signed up for an account on Meetup, scheduled our first hack night, and that was that. Over the following years, what took courage was embracing what Code for San Jose is and isn’t. Beyond the lofty rhetoric of making our communities better, we’ve had to figure out exactly how we do that on a few nights a month of volunteer effort.

And we’ve learned that showing up week after week is a contribution in itself. While we’ve pulled off great projects and energizing events, our most valuable output is not the apps, it’s being an open, consistently welcoming space where on any given week someone could show up and get inspired to shift their path just as I did five years ago.

Chapter Two is about how best practices only get you so far. So after two years of working at City Hall and running Code for San Jose on nights and weekends, I joined the city managers innovation team as it was starting up. This was my chance to start doing civic innovation as my day job. Our team benefited from connections to a strong and growing community of government innovators like the folks gathered here who had already distilled the best of their work into playbooks that shared what had worked in other places. Through events like the Summit, we established relationships with peers in other cities and we heard success stories that informed our sense of what was possible.

This is a photo of about 20 of us at the 2015 Summit and I can still remember notable workshops from past years, like one that Boston and San Francisco organized on writing user centered RFPs. Their presentation was so chock full of advice that I still rely on it today and I can even tell you the bit.ly link to go check out those resources if you ask me afterwards. And one of the things that makes Summit so energizing for all of us is that government innovation is at the center here.

But the reality for most of us back at City Hall is that we are tiny teams compared to the scale of our governments. This red dot represents the size of our founding innovation team compared to the total number of employees in the City of San Jose. How do we make an impact on 1 million residents with four people in a government agency with a total head count of over 6,000?

With that in mind, our team has always embraced our role as multipliers, enablers. We need other departments to believe that innovation is core to their mission, not something on the fringe. And that’s why in our first month we distilled the best playbooks from this community into three essential habits that we wanted to build across the City of San Jose: Champion the customer, learn through data, and iterate to improve.

Best practices are great, but ultimately changing a culture requires the courage to listen to the surprises along the way. You know, when your principles meet reality. And for us, one of our most successful initiatives is something that was never ever on our roadmap: using Agile for nontechnical teams. We had started experimenting with scrum on our own team but didn’t have a plan roll it out citywide, but before long we couldn’t ignore the demand from our colleagues in other departments who saw agile methods as a solution to a problem that mattered to them. Prioritizing and getting things done as a team.

Today we have over a dozen non-technical agile teams in the City of San Jose comprising over a hundred staff in departments ranging from emergency management to parks. Even better, our peers in other cities who’ve heard about this have been inspired to try agile on their teams like Mark A. Bear, innovation director at the San Francisco Human Services Agency whose work affects one in four San Franciscans. It makes me incredibly proud that by sharing our stories, our work in San Jose has been able to impact change makers in other agencies.

Chapter Three: towards inclusive digital services in San Jose. So as our team started to grow its innovation portfolio, what I needed to do was turn the idea of a digital services team from an imaginary thing in my head to something that other city leaders believed in and valued and I got my opportunity when I was put in charge of one of our city’s most important digital services for residents, our 311 app for reporting neighborhood issues such as graffiti, potholes, and illegal dumping.

As those of you in local government may know for many of our residents, a city’s response to 311 requests is a measure of local government’s ability to deliver on his promises. If they report graffiti in the their neighborhood park and it’s gone in a couple of days, they say it shows the city cares. On the other hand, if they report a couch on their sidewalk and we never follow up with them and that coach stays on the sidewalk for weeks or possibly even months, they say it’s a black hole. You don’t know if you’re being ignored and many other residents don’t even realize that they have the option to report neighborhood issues to the city and get a response.

They say, “Why haven’t we heard of this before?” Designing better government means making sure that our 311 app is inclusive of all of San Jose’s residents. After all, diversity is one of San Jose’s defining characteristics. 39% of San Jose residents were born outside the United States and 57& of San Jose residents speak the language other than English at home with Spanish and Vietnamese being the most common languages. So given these statistics, one of the first new features that my team was asked to implement in our 311 service was full end to end translation. But there was a big assumption here that language was the major barrier in making our digital services more inclusive to underserved residents. And I realized that we needed to better understand how to design for our diverse residents.

So just as I realize this need Code for America announced a new Community Fellowship, which pairs local Brigade talent with government to improve services for vulnerable people. With this connection, we were able to use the fellowship to bring new capabilities into our organization. We brought on two designers, Nira Datta, Julie Kim, both San Jose residents and Code for San Jose members. Julie and Nira conducted user research on the barriers and opportunities for vulnerable residents using our 311 app. They built relationships with existing community organizations to reach monolingual Spanish and Vietnamese speakers and develop prototypes that addressed multiple barriers they had discovered in their research.

As a result, we now have evidence for our city leaders in San Jose that making our services simpler makes them better for everyone. Once they had conducted this pioneering research for our city, it was my role to make it meaningful and relevant to the rest of the organization. So my call to courage came in seizing the opportunity to name and frame our user centered approach as being fundamental to building equitable and inclusive services.

Earlier this year I was called to the podium in our council chambers to answer questions from our mayor and 10 council members. They wanted to know how soon we could translate our 311 app into multiple languages and the timeline for implementing other features. So in a public high pressure setting like this, my first instinct was not to take risks and to stay within the lines of the questions that had been asked of me. I drafted straight forward technical answers on schedule and scope. Luckily just in time with a nudge from some supportive leadership, I realized that this council meeting was actually my magic moment to advocate for the value of user research.

I shared Julian Euro’s findings about designing for simplicity and designing for digital access being as important to our residents as translation and although our methods were new to the council members, it showed that we were serious about putting our residents needs at the center of a conversation about equity. I’m also pleased to report that at the end of Julian Jerez fellowship, we were able to keep them on to work for the city as our first ever content designer and UX designer. So digital services is no longer an imaginary idea in my head. It’s a funded body of work with a pilot team in San Jose.

The fourth and final chapter of this story is about being a leader. It was great that we’d hired designers and that we’d built trust with council members, but we still needed to improve the way that we delivered our 311 services to our residents. The problem was the 311 service delivery spanned over 65 staff in six different service teams across five different departments, each with their own process, their own pain points and their own ideas about what was most important.

I needed to establish a shared vision that put our users at the center and got us all moving in the same direction. The connection that catalyzed the next step was the CfA Summit conversation that would grow into a four day discovery sprint at San Jose City Hall. Exactly a year ago at Summit between one of these sessions just outside this room, Caitlin Divine, and I struck up a conversation. She had a background both in the federal government and now as a digital services consultant and she offered really practical and down to earth advice for me and also seemed genuinely curious about helping me figure out how to get local government to try more experiments driven ways of working.

I reached out to her over email and after a few more video calls, Caitlin and her colleague Larry from Ad Hoc were on a plane out to San Jose for a discovery sprint. Now before they came, I spent two full weeks on the phone getting the right people in the room. I pulled in department directors, division managers, frontline service delivery crews, every one that internally had a perspective. I also pulled in Julianne Euro, then our Code for America Fellows and amazingly they recruited 20 San Jose residents for user interviews with less than a week’s notice and no gift cards to boot.

So over the course of four days with all of these people in the room and Larry and Caitlin guiding us, we interviewed staff and residents, we mapped out our processes, we developed prototypes and tested those prototypes and by the end we had a vision statement for our 311 app that everyone agreed on and was excited about and we identified our highest priority objectives for immediate action. After Caitlin and Larry left City Hall that week, I felt ready but nervous. We had a north star, but now it was up to me to guide everyone else in that room at the city in the right direction and keep us going in that direction.

So as it turns out, I’m the type of person who is susceptible to wisdom from unlikely places. And in this case it came from a fortune cookie message, which I have taped up on my wall. A leader is the person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself. This sums up the challenge that I set for myself in my role. It was my role to be the advocate and to be continually advocating for a more user-centered, iterative approach to our digital services. No one else was going to be bold for me and it was new to our city and I would have to advocate for these newer approaches knowing that we would meet obstacles, knowing that I wouldn’t get everything right, knowing that I’d have to learn from my mistakes and admit that I’d make mistakes and try again.

I’d be exposed, I’d be vulnerable, and I had to accept that that discomfort and that uncertainty of being a leader in my city and that’s where we come back to this image. Of finding the courage to be the one to push things forward. You see, when I pictured myself in this desert, it wasn’t that I was left there to waste away. It’s with the knowledge that I have the power to ask for what I need, if I can muster the focus and the tenacity to do so. I know that I am blessed with supportive executive sponsors, with open-minded city colleagues, and with an ever expanding community of practitioners who are committed to this work.

And I’m learning that sometimes leadership is about making big, bold decisions or standing up in front of a room full of people, but it’s also about the mundane things that we need to find the courage to do every day. It’s about scheduling one on one meetings for candid conversations. It’s about securing commitments to objectives and key results. It’s about getting executives to agree to a new governance structure. It’s following up with people on things they said they do or things you said you would do. And it’s continually fixing things when they fall out of alignment.

Most of all, I’ve learned that leadership can feel lonely and it’s not something that I can do alone. And step-by-step by pulling in other people, by showing up every day, by building trust and applying the best of what we’ve learned from this community, we in San Jose are moving the needle on how we deliver services to our residents. We’re improving, not just the screens that our residents interact with, but the end-to-end service from reporting to triaging, to responding out in the field. And while it has been essential for me to find my personal courage, our achievements have only been realized when I’ve succeeded at recruiting partners and empowering and supporting other leaders and asking for help.

To design better government, we need connection to a strong community of practice. To design better government, we need courage to confront what’s hard about this work or what’s hard for us as individuals to lead this work. And those two needs are interdependent. And it’s this interdependence that I want to end on. This quote from Joseph Campbell sums up what I mean.

“We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves. But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person by the vitalizes.” So as I celebrate my five year anniversary in public service, my five years with Code for San Jose and my fifth Code for America Summit, I am so grateful to all the vital people who have inspired and sustained me on my journey, who have influenced and vitalized me.

From my fellow civic hackers who have energized and sustained code for San Jose over the past five years. To my dedicated and inventive colleagues at the city of San Jose. By the way, if you want to join us, we’re hiring. To brilliant Brigade leaders from across the national network. Peers who are designing better government in other agencies. Partners and guides who’ve walked alongside the city of San Jose on our journey. A couple of really great thought partners with whom I have a really awesome bi-monthly Google hangout call to trade ideas and advice and many others who’ve influenced me with their writing, their thinking, and even their tweeting.

So how will being at Summit this week help you find courage and connection? And how will you inspire and sustain others along the way? Thank you.

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