Leading the Field: Julie Sutherland

A conversation with Code for America’s Design Manager
Julie Sutherland smiles at the camera in front of a window.

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Pride Month, we’re lifting up the voices of queer leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect.  This week, we spoke with Julie Sutherland, Code for America’s Design Manager.

At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.

What role does design play in creating systems and products that honor and respect people?

Design is totally central to creating systems and products that honor and respect people. First, it’s helpful to accept that everything has been “designed.” Sometimes those designs intentionally consider the people who will be interacting with them and sometimes they do not. For example, every form you’ve ever filled out has been designed—someone or something created questions in some order. But not every form considers if the questions are easily understandable, or how it’s going to feel for someone to supply answers. Even fewer forms have been designed to be inclusive or equitable; it’s still rare that a form asks questions in a way that is respectful, providing the right amount of context so people know why the question is being asked. There’s also a bigger question to ask here: how many forms could be designed out of existence, making the services they hold the keys to easier for people to access?

Those are the questions I like to wrestle with in my work. At Code for America, we practice people-centered product and service design. This starts with research, where we seek to listen and learn from those most impacted by the services we support. We seek ongoing partnerships and co-designer relationships so that we’re accounting for our own biases and can spot equity concerns early, as well as be in a position to get continuous feedback and guidance from folks interacting with the product or service. While designers and design researchers have tons of responsibility in this process, we also depend on the expertise of our cross functional teams. So, our design work also includes making sure we’re on the same page with product managers, engineers, and program and policy experts. There’s so many layers to the services we work on, and while our designers and researchers will always prioritize the experiences of people using the services, our designs also need to be informed by the whole team’s ideas on how to build stuff that serves people better. 

You’ve said it’s an “ethical necessity” to consider the context in which technologies will exist while designing a product or service, especially when it could impact a community that has been marginalized. What contexts do you consider when designing something to support queer communities?

As a baseline, services definitely need to be inclusive of nonbinary gender identities and changed names, as well as how safe people will feel accessing services, both in public spaces and in one-on-one interactions with a service provider. There’s some good guides out there for LGBTQ+ inclusive services, but I would also encourage civic organizations to engage with people. Find a service provider in the local community that serves LGBTQ+ folks—especially those that serve people of color—partner with them, and compensate any research participants for their involvement. You might learn about important local issues and considerations that queer folks would need to access and improve your services. A lot of folks have also experienced some fracturing of trust and lack of acceptance from personal relationships as well as society, and so have built inspiring mutual support systems. I think this poses an interesting question for designers: How will your product or service function for someone who is supporting another person eligible for the service?

But there are many queer communities and queer folks who have overlapping identities that have been marginalized, so I always want to put myself and my designs in a position to learn anew. Because the LGBTQ+ experience is so rich and enlightening, there’s so many benefits to being open to learning. Queer lives, loves, and identities disrupt hierarchical binaries just by existing. The fact that we insist on gender identities and relationships outside of the binary of male/female refutes not just the binary, but also the way that binary assigns value to one over the other, in this case that men have more inherent value than women. Once you start questioning these binaries and the values assigned in heteropatriarchal society, a whole lot of other nonbinary experiences can come through (mind/body, white/color, citizen/immigrant, urban/rural, western/Indigenous and more). So I see queer lives as an inspiration for re-designing a lot more than just a form.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field? 

 Bringing my full self to work in this field means feeling as though my colleagues and managers will do the work to keep growing so they can learn from colleagues with lived experiences different from their own. 

2020 was a wake up call for a lot of organizations. Some have done better than others, but many seem to be asking (or perhaps the workers are asking) how work can provide better support and/or nonjudgmental and non-punitive space for employees who may be experiencing different levels of trauma from current events. Whether it’s the continual violence and widespread coverage of police violence against Black, Latinx, and trans people or micro-aggressions caught on camera, a lot of folks have been experiencing vicarious trauma and have had to pretend nothing was wrong at work for a long time—and you know what, their parents and their grandparents had to do that, too. The American workplace has absolutely privileged workers with the least trauma or emotional burden in their lives for generations, sustaining white supremacy culture at work. I feel like many people have been denied a vision of authentic, inspiring, and collaborative leadership. 

So I think anything a workplace can do to be more inclusive, to provide support for workers and to keep fine-tuning their approach, allows more people to bring their full self to work and contribute with their experiences and ideas.  

What do you think it would take to create a government that equitably serves all people?

I think it’s important to first recognize that bettering government is always going to be an ongoing process. A big part of this involves putting practices in place that allow governments to be humble, and to learn from and design with folks impacted by services, especially the most marginalized. Depending on local history, context, existing relationships, it’s possible that the most equitable way to deliver a service might sometimes mean the government should take a back seat—just write the checks and let trusted community groups deliver the service. 

The driver of my design work is research and prototyping. These are foundational practices in humility and making better stuff. Research gives you insights and direction and prototypes are where you move into the future. This alone will not create equitable services, but it’s probably where a lot of governments still need to start. 

To build towards equity, governments will need to go beyond research and prototyping with the people who use a service to co-creation and accountability to the people most affected by the service. This is more than a workshop, focus group, or public hearing, and instead is sustained work with impacted communities in mutually beneficial ways. This type of work blurs the line between government and community and provides opportunities for impacted folks to change government to be more representative of the communities it seeks to serve. I’m inspired by the work in Austin, TX, by the participatory design tradition in Europe, and by recent attempts at policy co-design between Indigenous communities and the government in Australia and New Zealand. I’m still learning about when and how to implement such co-design engagements, but I know it’s possible.

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