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September 3, 2014

Bureaucratic camouflage and organizational design

by Hannah Koenig

The organizational chart is government’s way of structuring itself visually. In the US, this usually means it exists on letter-sized paper or on a presentation slide. It’s like a family tree where hierarchical and lateral relationships are mapped and acronyms abound.

At the State Department, the visual structure of the org chart is one of disparate columns of boxes. When I arrived, I expected that the columns of the org chart would mirror the reality of behavior across bureaus, where people remained within their column of boxes and “stayed in their lane.”

I’ve done some reflecting on org charts of late, especially as I participated in a course offered through State’s Foreign Service Institute on State’s operations here in DC and how State interacts with other government agencies. The course facilitators asked us to map out our relationships with other bureaus in the various columns of State’s org chart. The resulting maps were messy, tangled, and colorful–in short, far from the sterile grid of the official org chart. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate that relationships are crucial to being effective, and that we rely on our colleagues who sit in bureaus across the org chart to help us achieve our shared mission.

It is in this spirit of collaboration and relationship building that the Collaboratory seeks to operate. We are learning about social networks, organizational change, and human-centered design, and seeking to be conveners across disparate org charts, the private sector, and civil society. While the private sector has been no stranger to design, the challenge of making space for design in government remains. I’ve been trying to come up with effective ways to integrate design into State’s organizational culture.

The good news is that I’m not alone: I’ve met a handful of designers working at State so far, and their projects are exciting. While their official titles camouflage them into the bureaucracy, they are using design processes to identify, frame, and solve problems of information management, user experience, and systems design in government. I was thrilled to connect with them and commiserate as I approach similar problems and encounter similar obstacles. 

Last week, I piloted a design thinking workshop with the Collaboratory team as participants. Since our launch last November, we have been running periodic sessions called CollabSalons, where we open our doors to our colleagues to brainstorm, gather feedback, or thank them for their contributions to projects. The design thinking workshop will be the next iteration of the CollabSalon series. Conceived as a way to make space for design at State, the goal of the workshop is to introduce the process of design thinking and explore the ways in which our colleagues in ECA can use it to approach their work.

Planning for the CollabSalons

 This project is fun and challenging—I’m doing a lot of learning about design thinking and how to communicate the process outside of an art and design community. After getting feedback from my team, I’m moving forward on designing a kit for participants with the tools that they will need for the session (picture lots of post-it notes and sharpies) as well as resources that they can take away with them afterwards. I’m also working on an identity for the CollabSalon event series to amplify our visual presence in physical and digital spaces.

In the meantime, I’m working on setting up my own toolkit: this week I sumbitted paperwork for purchasing an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription that will eventually live on an internet-enabled laptop. Imagine the possibilities for printing in a world where I don’t have to cross the street to use cafeteria wifi for transferring files… Next up: determining printing capabilities and fixing the color balance in the copy room.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the U.S. Department of State.

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