Leading the Field: Karissa Minnich

A conversation with the Civic Design Manager for The Lab @ DC

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 Women’s History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of women who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect.  This week, we spoke with Karissa Minnich, the Civic Design Manager for The Lab @ DC. 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.

Tell us a little bit about your work for The Lab @ DC. What’s unique about being a civic designer working in government?

The Lab is a design and research team embedded in Washington, DC’s Office of the City Administrator. We’re a group of civic designers, data scientists, and social scientists looking to address the challenges most important to DC residents. We do that by serving as an internal resource to the 70+ agencies within DC government, partnering on civic design projects, predictive models, and randomized evaluations.  

I joined The Lab seven years ago, when we were just launching. In that time, the work I’ve contributed has been as diverse as the challenges our government tackles. Transforming government paperwork, addressing senior food insecurity, standing up quick responses during the COVID emergency, connecting residents to homeownership resources, making housing vouchers more accessible…the list goes on. 

What’s unique about being a civic designer in government—and something I quite enjoy—is being a generalist. In my experience, this work requires you to be a designer, a researcher, and a project manager—roles that might be separate in the private sector. You have to be scrappy and get in the weeds to get things done. Sometimes that looks like spending months with legal to develop a gift card policy and months with procurement to then buy and securely track those gift cards so you can do the “civic design work” of hosting a community design session and using gift cards to incentivize participation.  

When you’re thinking through the barriers that residents face in accessing government services, how do you pick where to start—that first tweak in the process?

I try to look for that sweet spot where we find overlap between “this is something we can do in 6–12 weeks,” “this will have a positive impact for residents,” and “this will make service delivery easier for government staff.” That first deliverable can be relatively small, but it earns us trust and momentum that we can build on to tackle the bigger barriers.  

If that sweet spot exists, we find it by listening to residents and frontline staff. It only takes a handful of conversations with folks asking them, “What’s working, what’s not working, and what would make your life easier?” to get a sense of where the opportunities exist.   

That first deliverable can be relatively small, but it earns us trust and momentum that we can build on to tackle the bigger barriers.  

How do we make the tools of human-centered design—things like journey mapping, sprints, and prototyping—accessible to people who don’t have a background in this kind of work?

I’ve found that the terminology may be foreign, but the tools usually are not. Early on, I worked with an agency hellbent on holding a “focus group” when what their work really needed was a co-design session. When I suggested co-design, they got nervous. They’d never done that before. So, I switched gears. How about an “interactive focus group?” Now we were speaking the same language.  

I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t get stuck on my fancy labels. Meet your user where they are. The irony is not lost on me.   

When I’m trying to understand a user’s experience through a service, I ask my agency partner, “Can we draw a flow chart?” If user research is needed, I say, “Can we talk to some residents using your service? Or, “Can we sit in your service center for a few hours and observe?” When it’s time to prototype, we “brainstorm.” When people experience these tools in action—perhaps in a familiar, but slightly new way—now they feel accessible to replicate.   

I learned a valuable lesson: Don't get stuck on my fancy labels. Meet your user where they are.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work? What identities are most present for you when you’re thinking through challenges?

From day one as a District employee, I have drawn on my identity as a DC resident. I take pride in living in the community that I serve.  But in the last three years, I have drawn deeply from my newest identity: being a mom.  

A few months after returning from maternity leave, I co-hosted a design session with DC parents—mostly mothers—experiencing housing instability. The District was launching a pilot that would provide families with five years of rental assistance, career coaching, and cash payments to cover the loss of government assistance as participants earned more through employment. A dozen or so parents joined us to help shape elements of the program’s design. And the way I planned and showed up to that design session was different then before my son was born. At event registration, I asked if anyone needed a space to nurse or pump. I told parents to bring little ones if they didn’t have childcare. I brought toys, crayons, and Cheerios. Before I asked parents to share their challenges, I shared some of my own. And when I saw a parent struggling to stay awake, I didn’t mistake their newborn fatigue for disinterest.  

This work blends empathy with lived experience. Bringing my full self to work means embracing that my personal life is what makes my professional work richer. Being a DC resident, a homeowner, a consumer of our public parks and libraries, and (very soon) a parent of a public-school student—these are the identities that help me find common ground with those I’m here to serve.      

We should be resourcing and empowering program staff to play an active role in civic tech. When we do that, I hope we’ll not only see civic tech take off, but we’ll see more agile service delivery.  

Where do you think the field of civic tech has room to grow in the next few years?

We need more off-the-shelf, no-code digital tools that program staff can use independently. Too often, folding tech into government service delivery means either securing a big budget to procure a vendor to do a build, or getting in a long queue with the in-house IT team. But there are so many ways government can utilize tech that don’t require either of those things. 

I want to see more program staff in the driver’s seat. Need to stand up a chatbot to support customer service? …a simple application form? …automated emails and text messages to customers? These small to medium uses of tech can be supported with tools already on the market and don’t require a background in coding. Program staff far outnumber the developers in government. We should be resourcing and empowering program staff to play an active role in civic tech. When we do that, I hope we’ll not only see civic tech take off, but we’ll see more agile service delivery.  

For the bigger tech needs, I’d love to see more support from the federal government. The regulations for state-administered federal programs increasingly call for digitization and leveraging administrative data. That’s great. And it can be a challenge for states to deliver. But what if federal agencies helped secure large-scale procurements of digital tools that states could opt into? States would benefit from collective buying power and have a huge head start on procurement. Another option: provide open-source software that states can customize for their specific needs.  

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