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Two years ago, Mayor Bowser launched The Lab @ DC within the Office of the City Administrator. The Lab is a bold effort supported by Arnold Ventures philanthropy to include a team of scientists in the inner workings of DC Government. When we first developed The Lab @ DC, we did so with an idea in mind—what we scientists would call a hypothesis—about how DC government could work better for you.
Our idea was that if we met on the street and asked you, “How should government make decisions?” you would probably say something like this:
Focus on what residents think is important. Carefully design something to help. Do it, and do it well. Test it out. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t—or doesn’t work well enough—do something different.
Seems simple, right? Whether we’re talking about crime, education, healthcare, housing, transportation, anything you care about in the District, it’s a common-sense approach. It also happens to be how scientists usually approach a problem:
Listen. Design. Do something. Test. Decide. Repeat.
It turns out, that after two years of testing our idea, we’ve found that there are hundreds of dedicated individuals throughout DC government and the community who believe in this approach. And we’re meeting more every day.
It also turns out, that whether your primary job is to house the homeless, keep the streets safe, keep the streets clean, or enforce the building codes, there’s little time left to approach challenges the way we’d like. Too often, one or more of these important steps gets squeezed out. So, our process as governments can end up looking much more like this:
Listen. ______. Do something. ____ . _______. Repeat.
Or any combination of those steps, and in any order.
That’s why Mayor Bowser created The Lab @ DC: to serve residents better by homing in on what actually works for them. Instead of critiquing DC agencies for not being able to be more “evidence-based,” we created a team whose entire job is to support all our public servants in that work.
Side-by-side with agency staff, we’re acting on our best intentions as public servants. Together, we’re listening, designing, doing, testing, deciding, and repeating the process, all to serve residents better. Together, we’re using science to try to improve how more than 250 million of your tax dollars are spent each year. And, we’re doubling down on Mayor Bowser’s commitment to ensure these projects serve our communities with the greatest need.
As of today, we have taken on 34 projects from across District government devoted to what works:
Through our partnership with the Department of Human Services (DHS), we discovered that mailing a one-page letter, designed and tested using science, can make a huge difference. That letter is helping roughly 750 more families a year maintain the cash assistance benefits they qualify for. That simple letter worked so well that DHS decided to send a nearly identical one to 70,000 households to help them maintain nutrition assistance.
Through our longstanding partnership with the Metropolitan Police Department, we’re building on the knowledge that a trusting relationship between residents and law enforcement is critical to public safety. We also know that there is no one solution—like a body-worn camera—that will create a safer DC. Instead, it takes a comprehensive approach beyond policing. We are working with partners across DC to design and test different parts of that comprehensive approach.
Through an effort we call Form-A-Palooza, DC residents are now completing more than 300,000 government forms a year that have been redesigned to value their time and identity. That means, if you get a driver’s license, enroll your child in public school, apply for disability parking, search for a job through TANF, or start a business in DC you will do it with a form designed in collaboration with The Lab @ DC. This year, we’ll be using that same process to streamline applications for over 30 homeownership programs.
Whether you’re excited about that progress or skeptical of it, we want you to join us for the next six weeks where we’ll be describing our work in more detail. Each week, we’re diving into a different step in how we are trying to serve you better. We’ll go from Listen through Repeat, unveiling new web pages that provide a transparent look at all of our projects as we go (and we promise they won’t be too science-y).
What’s more important than anything we can tell you, is that we’re here to ask:
What do you think of The Lab @ DC so far?
Because if we’re not working to address the issues you care about most, then we’re not doing our job. Please let us know what you think throughout the next six weeks and years to come.
Talk to you soon,
Next up: Listen.
Sam Quinney is the Interim Director of The Lab @ DC. Sam lives in Ward 6 with his wife, a teething infant, and a 10-pound dog that no longer gets as much of her parents' attention as she used to.