5 tips for creating a more “open government”

Rebecca Woodbury, former Director of Digital Service and Open Government for the City of San Rafael, shares tips for those looking to improve the employee and end-user experience by creating a more collaborative culture and focusing on open resources for efficiency gains.

5 tips for creating a more “open government” media 1


For small to medium-sized governments, resources and budgets are particularly strained and most feel they are understaffed to provide frontline services effectively. On top of this, governments are now navigating a pandemic, which has forced even more attention on the bottom line, the use of digital tools, accessibility, and more effective ways of engaging with the community.

On the Govlaunch podcast this week, we tap into a medium-sized city’s strategy of establishing a department that aims to support other departments in their delivery of services, use of technology, and engagement with the community - a structural shift that also reduced the city’s IT expenses and improved access to city services and support.

San Rafael serves a community of about 60,000 just north of San Francisco, California. Two years ago, they created a new department for Digital Service and Open Government, and former Director Rebecca Woodbury shares some of the key elements of her department and how basic structural changes inspired a new way of thinking about service delivery and project management.

1. Create a structure to support wider strategic goals

The City of San Rafael, like just about every other local government, isn’t blessed with ample resources. But they do have a team committed to thinking creatively, and working with all users (resident and city employee alike) to improve the experience of interacting with their city.

They didn’t get here overnight. In San Rafael’s case, the new department for Digital Service and Open Government involved a complete restructure of the organization, with IT reporting up to this new department and thereby serving as a support function. According to Woodbury, this structure helps ensure organizational goals in line with streamlined end-user experience remain the focus. And while so much attention in the innovation space is on technology, Woodbury feels for her medium-sized city that the cultural and structural pieces need to come first.

With this restructure, San Rafael took advantage of an opportunity to fully outsource their IT functions by using a managed service provider (or MSP) instead of relying on contractors to augment a few city staff. This structural shift has resulted in better accountability (through their Statement of Work and contract with the MSP) and a significant reduction in overhead and time to train and manage staff. The city is also now rolling out 24/7 technical support through their provider, improving the overall experience with IT.

2. Create and share resources

With time freed up from hiring, training, and managing an IT team, San Rafael has been busy developing a project management framework to be used across departments...and by other interested local governments. Woodbury says:

“The project management mindset really helps to reinforce the importance of user needs and to make sure that they are paramount throughout the design process. I find oftentimes it's easy to have the user needs top of mind at the outset, but, you know, as fatigue sets in at the end of a project, most people are just trying to get it done. And, unfortunately, user needs can kind of unintentionally get deprioritized, but a product mindset really, I think can prevent that from happening.”

San Rafael takes this philosophy one step further by continually working on open tools to help guide their projects. These resources create consistency, save time, and can help identify gaps in project planning in the early stages. Most importantly, according to Woodbury, is the focus on the end user throughout, which is built into their methodology and their documentation, ensuring all projects are delivered with utmost attention and care to the user experience.

*For access to these open tools. reference resources linked to this story or resources on San Rafael’s Govlaunch page.

3. Offer inclusive training opportunities

Between a more seamless IT support structure and the efficiency pickups that come from using documented tools and templates to guide a project lifecycle (vs starting from scratch each time) has also freed up her department to coordinate a city-wide training program - called “The Learning Lab”. In this training program, cross-departmental teams are formed and must apply human centered design to a work challenge.

San Rafael has worked on everything from illegal dumping to cross-departmental permits to homeless encampments. Through these training opportunities, they’ve been able to socialize the concept of human centered design throughout the organization. Putting the user experience first is now a cultural mindset throughout the city, largely thanks to the collaborative work in this department.

4. Acknowledge there is competition in local government

We like to think about local government as a community of public servants looking to share ideas and information to help make government work better for everyone. And this is generally true - It is after all, the crux of our business model at Govlaunch.

But local government is not void of competition. Whether you are competing for new businesses to spur economic growth or creating a more walkable community to attract young families, there are certain things local governments must do if they want to appeal to newcomers - especially ones also eyeing the town next door. Woodbury brings up another form of competition: The option to not engage.

Woodbury says: “People can choose to go to libraries and community centers in the town next door, or people can choose to not get a permit or not pay a parking ticket. And when people choose not to do these things, the outcomes down the road are not ones I think anybody wants. And so when you think of people not doing these things as your competition, then it really makes you look deeply at how easy something is to accomplish or who do you need to better design things for to increase compliance.”

5. Do not overlook frontline staff

Part of this holistic approach to service delivery includes looking closely at the experience of the frontline staff. While a resident may report a frustrating experience, perhaps no one is better suited to identify pain points and areas for improvement than those employees involved in these day to day transactions.

Some local governments are at the point they are leveraging data on mass and analytics to identify sticking points for a customer. Local governments who do not have this capacity can begin by soliciting feedback from frontline workers and gather at least anecdotal experiences that can help identify areas for improvement - without needing to weed through data sets. (Something we managers like to call “getting back to basics”).

Woodbury says: “If we care about [frontline staff] as people, and also the efficient spending of taxpayer dollars, we need to care about their time. And if we care about good customer service, we need to care about their frustrations and pain. The customer and the employee experience are inextricably linked. And we need to look holistically at both.”

Additional Story Information


Rebecca, Director of Digital Service & Open Government at San Rafael, CA



San Rafael Product Management

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