Leading the Field: Mari Nakano

A conversation with the Design Director of the NYC Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity
Mari Nakano stands in front of a wooden fence with an ornamental metal decal showing two fish and several starfish. Mari is smiling, has shoulder length black hair, and is wearing a grey coat.
Photo credit: Yuki Kokubo

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. In the month leading up to our 2021 Code for America Summit, we’re lifting up the voices of past and current Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. Recently, we spoke with Mari Nakano, the Design Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, who will be one of the speakers in the breakout session: Moving Equity Forward with the Pandemic as a Catalyst.

You sometimes refer to “bureaucratic hacking” as a guiding principle for your team. How does this theme show up in your work?

I think bureaucratic hacking is both a skillset and an attitude that helps you maneuver through government more effectively without breaking the rules.

I used to think of bureaucratic hacking as a skillset you learned on the job by observing others or reading about tactics in guides and case studies. But I’ve also come to see how bureaucratic hacking is very much an attitude that keeps us thinking hard about how we design and deliver services in ways that can better include our communities. Oftentimes, I put on my bureaucracy hacking hat to find ways to bring in diverse stakeholders from the community to help steer the design of projects in genuine and thoughtful ways. This means things like finding ways to incentivize communities for their time and energy, building up networks of staff across agencies to support and endorse service design best practices, or being able to shape stakeholder presentations in ways where we can not only talk about implementation strategies, but also about the value of inclusive design processes.

How has the field of government innovation and civic technology evolved since you first joined? What would you like to see more of?

I’m speaking really generally, but I think this field used to often be oversimplified as one consisting only of agile techie people from Silicon Valley who build modernized digital apps and websites for government systems. As a service designer who is part of this ecosystem, I used to feel like most people in my position were boxed into building digital products as their end goal. Now, on our team at the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, we focus on the design of systems, internal cultural, and behavioral change, often in service of programs and social services not necessarily looking for digital solutions.

I really hope our field can elevate more of what we do behind the scenes—the research that helps us paint a clearer picture of the systems we’re working within, the carefully crafted stakeholder meetings, the policies we interrogate, the teambuilding we do to keep everyone unified, the empathy we bring as dedicated, mission-driven public servants and vendors who are all working towards making government services more equitable and accessible.

While I always love to see more investment in hiring and embedding service designers in government writ large, I think I’d also like to see more hiring of more people with diverse backgrounds in things like social work, community organizing, communications, behavioral sciences, anthropology, psychology, etc.—people who can join our teams and keep us anchored in the people part of this work. I think we can also go beyond thinking about how to incorporate lived experience into our work and begin spending more time thinking about how social justice plays a part in all our work. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a designer as an internal public advocate, and have been reading things like Community Design: Idealism and Entrepreneurship.

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

Before I answer this, I want to say that my response is in the context of being a government worker. I think it’s important to note that we cannot bring our full selves to work until government and other institutions start changing policies and work cultures with the goal of becoming supportive environments for workers.

In an ideal state, bringing my full self to work would mean being able to proudly bring my lived experience to the table and have it understood as valuable information. It would mean having the capacity and energy to consistently be there for my colleagues and our partners—because, well, life is hard and we can’t help each other if we can’t help ourselves. And if we can’t help ourselves and each other, we can’t create social change. It would mean being able to feel confident and unafraid when I advocate for community needs, and being humble enough to learn from my mistakes.

As a second-generation Japanese-American cisgender woman, it’s really important for me to work within a community of people, be it with peers, members of the NYC community, and high-level leaders who I can share my history and experiences with openly.

With the most recent AAPI hate crimes, I’ve seen how these incidents have brought fear, anxiety and a resurfacing of some serious trauma within our communities. Moments like this make it extremely difficult for our AAPI family to feel safe doing what many of us might consider simple actions, like commuting to and from our places of work via public transportation. When you feel this way, it makes it hard to bring your full self to your job, especially if you don’t feel like you have a supportive work environment and culture. Even when this is front-page news, many AAPI’s don’t feel like we can comfortably speak about all of this without feeling like we’re burdening our colleagues. Our workplaces need to adjust and pivot sensitively in moments like this, without expecting hurting colleagues to just come forth and speak up about their pain and concerns when they aren’t even sure whether or not they will be perceived negatively, given unhelpful responses, or even ignored.

Being fully me at work is not just about my contributions and skillset as a designer. Being me is about being able to bring all of me to work—my stories, my cultural identity, my personality, my very plain language speaking style, and my neuro variant way of thinking and processing things. I think when any of us can bring more of ourselves to work, we can perform and deliver better results, and thus bring about real and honest change.

What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?

How I define a good government is one that works with its people to ensure every single one of its members is fed, housed, educated, healthy, loved, respected, stable, understood, happy, healed, creative, inspired, and so many other positive things. Government is an entity that should never say “it’s just too hard to help everyone.”

Designing an equitable government means looking at every facet of government—including where the money comes from, how it hires people, how it includes community voices in processes, and more—and asking ourselves in each of these instances whether or not those things are harming or helping people who are touched. Government has a chance to become the America it wants to reflect, but it first must reckon with and acknowledge itself as a large system that could do a lot better.

Can you give us a little preview of what you’ll be talking about at Summit this year?

Our breakout session—Moving Equity Forward with the Pandemic as a Catalyst: Three Examples from the Field—will be a great one to join if you want not one, not two, but three examples of how governments have used the pandemic as a tool to increase equity. Teams from the City of Lancaster and the U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs will be speaking alongside my colleagues from the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity and our partner at TakeRoot Justice. For our part, we will take you through our journey to stand up a fellowship program that invests in community leaders working on hyperlocal solutions. We’ll share the tools and tactics of service design throughout the program, and we hope to see you there!

Want to attend Mari Nakano’s breakout session and hear from more speakers like her? Tickets for the 2021 Code for America Summit are on sale through May 13. The theme of this year’s summit is “designing equitable government.” Register for Summit and workshops today.

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