City Governance – What’s Design Got To Do With It?

A Q/A with Liana Dragoman 

Recently I chatted with Liana Dragoman, Service Design Lead and Deputy Director with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT).  While other cities around the world like Seoul, South Korea have had deputy mayors of design, the application of design thinking in public policy and social impact work is still a bit novel in the United States.  Kudos to our City of Philadelphia, where the work of service design and design strategy is being enlisted in some very important ways.  ODDT was created under the Kenney Administration and staffs visual designers, user experience designers, service designers/design researchers, content strategists, data engineers and managers, and software developers.

Natalie Nixon (N.N.): What do you and your team do for the City of Philadelphia?

Liana Dragoman (L.D.): Pulling from really diverse design disciplines, our team collaborates with City offices, residents, and a variety of other stakeholders to create digital and non-digital services that are dignified, accessible, and effective.

Some of the ways we do this are by:

  • Publishing open data—making sure it’s visually accessible, online, free to use, machine-readable, and up-to-date;
  • Redesigning the City’s main digital service channel ( around the needs of residents, businesses, and other stakeholders;
  • Employing service design methods to improve end-to-end City service delivery; and
  • Building the City’s capacity to support content strategy, design strategy, development, and open data work in the long term.

In the summer of 2017, ODDT and the Mayor’s Policy Office won a Knight Cities Challenge grant to create the PHL Participatory Design Lab. We were able to hire Devika Menon as our service designer and Nathaniel Olin as our social scientist. I lead the service design and design research practice area in ODDT and co-lead the PHL Participatory Design Lab with Anjali Chainani who is the Mayor’s Policy Director. ODDT’s service design team’s main project right now—through the PHL Participatory Design Lab—is in partnership with the Office of Homeless Services. See the below links for more information.

N.N.: Very cool and congratulations!  How would you describe the current state of the application of design (-thinking/-strategy etc.) in city government?

L.D.: About six years ago, my attention turned towards design and government through the work of Sylvia Harris and her Citizen Research & Design team. Around that time, I started working with the Public Policy Lab as a service design fellow. Having service designers in government felt new in the United States, even when versions of the U.K.’s Government Digital Service, Mindlab in Denmark, and Helsinki Design Lab (among many others), were flourishing and continue to flourish abroad.

Post the turnaround, it was the former Obama administration that elevated human-centered design through the establishment of 18F, United States Digital Service (USDS), the Lab at OPM, and others. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs specifically hired service designers to make progress on transforming the VA.

While awareness of service design has grown within U.S. governments over the past several years, it’s still unique to see the creation of leadership positions or teams centered around service design specifically. Some current examples are San Francisco digital services team, San Francisco HHS and New York City. It’s my hope that this will change for the better in another several years.

N.N.: You’re right. People are familiar with designing tangible objects for product design, architecture and fashion design, but less so about the design of experiences and services. Where is the conversation around service design in government?

L.D.: Service design is a field of practice with professionals who have honed their craft. Just like accountants are hired to perform accounting work, U.S. governments should invest in service design teams and design leaders who can partner with policy-makers and domain experts to improve public sector policy-making and service delivery from a practiced service design lens.

The conversation surrounding design in government should move beyond newness, “innovation,” and “toolkits for all” to one of rigor and sustainable practice, answering the question: what is needed to do this work well in the public sector?

N.N.: I totally agree. So how might that look specifically in the City of Philadelphia?

L.D.: When I was first hired, the team I worked with was very small and we were just starting to lay the foundation for what ODDT does now in partnership with City agencies. Since then we have built an energized and skilled staff and succeeded in seeing some important projects to fruition. (See timeline at end of the article.)

N.N.: You’ve written about your own personal reasons for why we need more service design in city government.  What are a couple of examples of service design projects in Philadelphia city government?  

L.D.: One example would be the prototype project where we are working to enhance the ways Philadelphians interface with the City to get information on everything from trash collection to property searches.  We are attempting to build a culture of design to enhance employee engagement and public-facing service delivery by experimenting with design across agencies.

Another very new example is what I mentioned earlier- the PHL Participatory Design Lab + Office of Homeless Services funded by a Knight Challenges Grant.   Stay tuned- this is our first in-depth service design project!

N.N.: What’s next? What opportunities do you see as ideal for cities to apply design strategy/thinking/service design?

L.D.: ODDT has spent several years laying the foundation and building the infrastructure required to do what we do in partnership with other City agencies. ODDT will continue to work on the City’s new digital service experience ( Once the site is maintainable, we’ll combine efforts and tackle some of the City’s digital and non-digital end-to-end service challenges from our cross-disciplinary lens in partnership with our City colleagues who are the subject matter experts in the services and programs they deliver to and with the public.

For many reasons, government offices are siloed from one another even though they deliver similar, related, or the same services. I think service designers—as non-political actors—could work at the points of intersection to help City colleagues or leaders rework services from the perspective of a service participant or a resident. A government’s structure shouldn’t drive the design of a service experience; the needs, motivations, and lived realities of residents should dictate the structuring of service delivery, program design, and policy-making. What does that look like in practice? If I’m trying to apply for a program, everything I need to apply for that program should be accessible through that end-to-end experience even if pieces are owned by different government agencies.

N.N.: I love that service designers can work at the point of intersection for lots of different government agencies.  Thank you for your time, Liana!


Here is a timeline of ODDT projects between 2015 and 2018:



Natalie W. NixonNatalie W. Nixon, PH.D. is a hybrid thinker who’s consulting and research interests are at the intersections of creativity & strategy and business & design. At Figure 8 Thinking, LLC, she helps organizations ecclerate innovation and growth by developing meaningful strategy through design thinking and ethnographic research.


Liana Dragoman is a service design strategist and design researcher with over 16 years of diverse design experience in the academic, public, and private sectors. Twice, she was a Service Design Fellow with the Public Policy Lab where she partnered with NYC government and the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve service delivery.

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