The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Blog: Listen

We’re Listening for the Big Questions that Matter to Washingtonians


August 1, 2019

Last week we previewed The Lab’s approach to our project cycle: Listen. Design. Do something. Test. Decide. Repeat. This week we’re exploring step one “Listen” and unveiling the first of our new project pages.

On the go? Listen to this blog as a podcast.

Ivory tower.

That term has been used to criticize scientists for decades. You can picture it, right? A scientist sitting high-up in a tower, detached from the real world, only concerned with far-off ideas that impress their peers. Up there, they’re cut off from the daily lives of people on the ground.

It’s a term that we never want to describe the work of The Lab @ DC. That’s why the first step in how we use science in government is to listen. 

For us, listening means learning about the issues that are central in DC resident’s lives and shaping our work around those issues. But how do we know your priorities? Of course, we always have our ears open at community meetings and bus stops, during The Lunch @ DC and budget engagement forums, in the grocery store, and in the buzz of social media. We’re listening to the priorities voters elected Mayor Bowser to solve, we’re listening to what our agency partners tell us they are struggling with, and we’re listening to what gets the most spirited testimony from residents and advocates.

It’s a priority for us to create more useful platforms to hear from you directly. Our new webpages this summer are one new way we’re working on that and this fall we’ll be trying out new ways to get your feedback. Here’s what we’ve heard so far:

You want to live in a place where no one has to be homeless. 
Homelessness will be a priority for The Lab @ DC, until we are successful as a city in making it rare, brief, and non-recurring. Of course, to get there, we need to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. When the Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness (ICH), the Department of Human Services (DHS), and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) told us about an innovative idea to provide more flexible rental assistance to families at risk of homelessness, we dove in to help. We’ve worked hard on the design and implementation of the program, called DC Flex, which empowers households to make their own budgetary decisions and if it works, would allow the District to serve more families in the long run. This winter, we’ll report back whether DC Flex helped keep families housed and contributed to their economic livelihood in its first year of operation.

We hear about homelessness too often to stop there:

You want your government services to work well no matter how big or small. 
Whether it’s something as serious as when you need an ambulance or as mundane as a trip to the DMV, we know that you want government services that work well and value your time. Take for example the District’s 911 service. Since 2017, we’ve been working with our Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) to improve responses to 911 events that aren’t medical emergencies and may be better handled in primary and urgent care clinics. FEMS placed nurse practitioners directly in the 911 call center with a goal to make sure all callers in need of an ambulance received one. Those who don’t need an ambulance, are transported  to primary or urgent care without an ambulance. This winter we’ll report back on whether the program leads to improved service and improved health for callers. 

We hear about needing basic services to work too often to stop there:

  • We made nearly 40 of the District’s paper forms more user-friendly, from⁠ school enrollment packets, to driver’s license applications, basic business license applications⁠, and  

  • we’re using human-centered design to make the city’s homeowner assistance programs more accessible.

Mayor Bowser hears from residents about how they would make the basic business license application more user-friendly. (Credit: David Ris)

Mayor Bowser hears from residents about how they would make the basic business license application more user-friendly. (Credit: David Ris)

You want fair and transparent law enforcement that reduces crime.
From 2015 to 2016, MPD planned to equip all patrol officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs) as part of its effort to improve interactions between the police and the public. Instead of just handing out the cameras, MPD worked extensively with The Lab to design the largest, randomized study of body-worn cameras to date, while still distributing all cameras on time. What did we find? While body cameras remain a vital source of transparency, we found no measurable difference in officer or citizen behavior whether the officer wore a camera or not. This evaluation showed us that there is not one solution. MPD continues to innovate and implement new programs to improve police-community interactions. So, together we designed and implemented an evaluation of a novel training program. Police Chief Newsham teamed up with DC history professors who have lived and worked in the city for decades and know its residents, cultures, and lived experiences. Together they’re testing a curriculum for officers focused on the history of policing in DC, a comprehensive of the tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and local landmarks that are essential to the story of the District and its unique culture. In the coming year, we’ll report on the impacts of this innovative approach. 

We hear about policing too often to stop there:

  • We’ve looked at how data can make DC’s criminal laws more fair;

  • we’ve tested ways to increase police recruitment;

  • we’ve analyzed overall crime trends and the relationship between being arrested and being treated for mental and behavioral health disorders in DC; and

  • we’re exploring whether changes to how the District tracks and processes gun shell casings can reduce future gun violence (stay tuned for more!).

What’s next?
We’ve no doubt heard about more of your priorities than we’ve had the opportunity to address so far. We know our work has only begun to scratch the surface. That’s why we’re ready to act on your priorities when a new program is funded or a pressing challenge lands on an agency director’s desk. In the year ahead, we’ll be exploring topics ranging from transportation to homeownership. And of course, we want to hear from you! What are the big issues facing you and your neighbors? 

Your priorities are our priorities, and you have our commitment that we’re listening.

Karissa Minnich is a Senior Operations Analyst at The Lab @ DC. She and her husband just bought their first home in Ward 2. Her love of optimizing forms and processes extends far beyond work hours. She may or may not have color-coded and numbered all their moving boxes. 

Sam Quinney is the Interim Director of The Lab @ DC. Sam lives in Ward 6 with his wife, son, and dog.