What We're Learning
Here’s what we’ve learned about project tracking from public stakeholders and City staff. Read more about our research process here.
What we’ve learned from community members
People know local government matters
They have many motivations for getting involved in civic issues, some based on civic responsibility reasons, some based on the desire to impact issues of personal relevance and practicality to people.
People see the City as the primary source for information but the website and system is complex and alienating
People go to the City because they see it as a primary source for information on public services. But they find the city’s information and website confusing and overwhelming.
Not only is the city website confusing, but how the City operates is complex, confusing and alienating–even for people who have worked closely on City issues or served on citizen boards. They don’t know what different departments do, and view this in part as a shortcoming of departments’ responsibility to get their message out.
Community advocates perceive that city staff are sometimes fearful or uncertain of what information they can/should share. This contributes to the difficulty of navigating the system and finding the information people want.
People want their information curated through familiar, trusted sources – other media, civic groups, events, and social networks.
They also rely on these sources and groups for information, in part, because City departments and their web presence are hard to navigate. They acknowledge there are limitations to using social media and civic groups (bias, etc.).
People want a single (human) contact and trusted source on an issue
Because it’s hard to navigate the system, and the city isn’t always fully transparent or responsive, many find the most effective way to engage the city is through individual employees they have built relationships with. Many community advocate have a go-to person on the City side for information on particular projects.
When they don’t already know a precise city employee to contact, people have a hard time understanding who who to contact, who’s driving an initiative, and who can answer questions on particular projects. People want a human face for projects–a specific person they can contact to get more information on a project. For example, people think it’s really helpful when City employees attend and speak at public events. Emails addresses that look like distribution lists or generic accounts (ex: departmentX@austintexas.gov) don’t inspire much confidence that they’ll get through to a human.
What we’ve learned from City staff
Project management discipline and practices vary across teams and departments in the city.
Some teams have detailed project management practices and capture lots of data in systems. Other teams do not have rigorous project management approaches and do not capture data routinely.
Many enterprise project management tools aren’t working well for staff, but they’re seeing value from other (cloud-based) tools.
Many employees are dissatisfied with enterprise tools like Microsoft Project, Sharepoint, and the eCAPRIS interface. People are intimidated by the features of the tools and perceive a steep learning curve. And because many feel the tools are too sophisticated for their needs, or too complex and difficult to use, they don’t take the time to learn/adopt them.
Staff are seeing value from cloud-based (non-enterprise) project management and collaboration tools, for example, Trello, Google Docs, and Asana. But they want more help in learning to use them well.
Staff want to be able to use project information to improve how they do their work and tell their story.
They want to use data as business intelligence to focus their work. For example, examining what information is most often requested via public information requests, and proactively publishing that data to the open data portal. But they lack the data to power these decisions in some cases.
They also want to use project data to power storytelling about their mission and impacts (ex: mapping projects, showing progress and impact over time). Some examples:
They want to show impacts on intangibles (ex: how a new sidewalk impacts walkability of an area)
They want to be able to show return on investment of projects. Current tools and practices capture the costs/inputs well, but not the benefits and impacts.
Bonds and grants are becoming more prescriptive in data collection/reporting requirements. There’s an increasing need to track data and information related to projects.
Telling their story–and having the data to power that story–is hard because of several reasons.
Data standards and consistency: There’s a lack of data standards and consistency in the information systems that support them. They see inconsistency in how system users enter information. Data fields in systems are not standardized. And multiple implementations of the same software exist across (and even within) departments.
Interoperability: Information systems do not talk to one another. Departments use many proprietary systems that are not interoperable.
Lack of guidance on tool use: There’s a lack of guidance on how to use different tools. Staff feel overwhelmed with number of tools and don’t have a way to determine which are appropriate for different needs. Staff don’t understand why new tools are brought in, which creates a general sense of skepticism toward new tools.
Culture surrounding information sharing: Staff perceive a culture of fear around sharing too detailed of project information. There’s a worry that the public will interpret tentative or early plans as hard-and-fast commitments. They worry about setting expectations.
Always in reactive mode: Staff feel underwater with requests and demands and have trouble finding the time to craft their story proactively. According to one participant, “it’s a 24/7 job to track what is said about projects and correct misinformation.”
In light of these limitations, staff are coordinating informally–which works well, but with limits.
It’s who you know: Staff have to rely on institutional knowledge and meetings to know who to contact about particular issues. For example, 3-1-1, a big collector and disseminator of project information, relies heavily on meetings and relationships for its information. However, staff acknowledge that much of the knowledge that’s shared in these meetings and conversations is never documented so that it’s sharable more broadly.
Staff also see some successful examples of sharing information proactively. One department issues a weekly newsletter of project updates to tee up news stories for the following week. Departments are also successfully sharing updates with management–without project management tools.
User stories and priority data fields
Learning about the user needs from our research, we created user stories to document the requirements for a City of Austin project tracking tool. We translated these user stories into a list of what information (data fields) users want to see about projects.
The user stories follow the format: As a [user persona], I need a way to [do an action], in order to [accomplish a goal]. We then organized these user stories into several buckets based on how they inform our design and development of a tool.
These user stories helped us identify priority data fields to display on each project: