Q + A

Q+A: Chelsea Mauldin, Public Policy Lab

Have you heard of the Public Policy Lab? They’re a nonprofit organization that works at the intersection of human-centered design and public policy. They partner with government to design great public services with low-income and at-risk communities. They’re also based right here in DUMBO. We sat down with executive director Chelsea Mauldin to learn more.

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Tell us about the Public Policy Lab; why did you decide to start the organization?

In 2009, some design colleagues and I began working Medicare on how to improve beneficiaries’ experiences enrolling in and using Medicare services. We saw there was a growing appetite for strategic design consulting inside of government, specifically around policymaking and social service delivery, so we decided to launch a new organization in 2011. Because we wanted to clearly indicate that we are operating in the public interest, and that our client is the public, we decided to incorporate as a nonprofit.

How did you get into public policy work?

After completing graduate school, in urban design and social science, I came back to New York and took a job at working at a public space advocacy organization – that was my first experience combing strategy with design in a government context.

What’s the team like?

We have four people in the office, plus more than 20 fellows, some of whom join us for one project, others of whom work with us on multiple projects. The fellows are researchers, strategists, behavioral economists, and designers from a wide variety of backgrounds – communications designers, service designers, architects, etc.

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Who are your clients?

Most of our partners are government agencies. We’ve done a couple of projects with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We also work with New York City agencies and some other municipal agencies around the country. We also occasionally partner with large philanthropies and other public-interest organizations.

Do organizations approach you with research ideas?

Yes, or sometimes we have an idea for a project we’re interested in doing and we will reach out to people we know in government and say, “Who do you think would be interested in doing this?” So both of those are possibilities.

Is your work based mostly on research or advocacy?

All of our projects involve a research component, mainly ethnographic qualitative research. We also often design prototypes of new services – meaning tools, materials, interactions, and policies, all the different aspects of a given public service program. And optimally we do live testing of the prototypes and conduct an evaluation process, as well. The advocacy comes from doing all that work in a user-centered way – we really believe the public’s needs and aspirations should be the basis of policy and service-making – and from being committed to helping our government partners do their work in new ways.

Could you give us an example of one of your projects?

Sure, let’s take the work we did with the US Department of Veterans Affairs, looking at how the VA can better assist veterans in accessing services. To learn about people’s needs, what we do is visit people in their homes or workplaces and have an open-ended conversation about their life and experiences. We get what we think of as ‘thick data’: we talk to fewer people than, say, a traditional survey, but get a much richer understanding of people’s aspirations and preferences. That gives us insights we can use in a collaborative design process. With the VA, we set up design stations at VA hospitals and we would find a veteran and ask, “Hey, will you come and work with us on this project a little bit?,” give them different tools and prototypes, and have them work with us to create new versions that they preferred.

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How long does it take for a typical project?

Totally depends on the scope of the project. We’ve done projects like the New York City Digital Playbook, where we did all the fieldwork with city residents in three days, with multiple research teams going out and doing many interviews in a constrained geographic area. Other times, such as the VA work, it’s a year-long project with multiple waves of research that take place over months around different topic areas all across the country.

Have you always been here in 20 Jay?

No, this is our third office in DUMBO! We started out at Green Desk, then moved from there to 10 Jay, then moved here.

What do you like about DUMBO?

All of our staff and most of our fellows live in Brooklyn, so it’s super convenient – and it’s also great to be on the water.

Favorite place in DUMBO?

There’s an office obsession with Bread & Spread’s sandwiches!