UW News

January 14, 2021

Evans School Dean Jodi Sandfort: A public university can help redesign public services

UW News

woman standing outside campus building

Jodi Sandfort assumes her role as dean of the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance on Jan. 15.Mark Stone/U. of Washington


Incoming Evans School Dean Jodi Sandfort had expected to spend the first several months of 2020 on a Fulbright Fellowship to Copenhagen, researching what she hoped would be a book about human-centered design in social welfare policy. The COVID-19 pandemic cut her stay to a couple of months — but it was still enough time, she said, to take away a few lessons.

That Denmark provides its citizens with any number of services and programs wasn’t surprising. Rather, it was the citizen-first approach to those programs that Sandfort, a professor of public policy at the University of Minnesota, took note of.

Through an online portal accessed from a government-issued identity card, Sandfort received regular reminders about health care, updates on school programs for her son and other messages checking in on her well-being as a new, if temporary, resident of Denmark.

Many Americans might bristle at that kind of government involvement in their lives, Sandfort said, but there are things for the U.S. to learn from such citizen-oriented outreach.

“Design is a powerful tool for improving public services for all citizens,” she said. “The work ahead is to address administrative burden and advance equity. Assumptions of white supremacy is baked into these systems, and they must be redesigned so that they work for all people. The research is clear: People learn about their worth as citizens by how the government treats them.”

Sandfort, a member of the National Academy of Public Administration whose research has focused on social policy implementation and organizational effectiveness, officially assumes her role as dean of the Evans School on Jan. 15. She sat down with UW News to talk not only about her experience in the field of public policy, but also about the role the Evans School can play in furthering discussions about government in a polarized society.


What do you see as the most pressing issues facing society, and how can the Evans School be involved?

The first pressing issue is building the trustworthiness of public institutions for citizens, and a large part of that’s about dealing with racial bias. We must focus our attention on strengthening our democratic processes and institutions, improving what we are doing and how we are doing it together. The Evans School can be more open to sharing the expertise that we have, both about the content related to policy issues and about the processes of designing, implementing and improving programs and management.

The second pressing issue is the bifurcation of the electorate and changes in the media. 2020 made those divisions clear. When people have such diverse places that they’re getting information, we don’t see what we know in common anymore. A public university has a critical role in convening people, in having tough conversations, in trying to help people understand the importance of discussion and debate in keeping democracy vibrant. Public policy is the way we try to address social problems together. And Evans is a top school in the country for public policy education. I’m hoping the Evans School will be a more visible convener and supporter of the development of effective policy in the Pacific Northwest region.

The third issue is to help remind people of the sacred work of public service. Over the last 40 years, public services have been presumed to be suspect somehow. And yet this year, we’ve seen the consequences of having very vulnerable public institutions. For the first time, we’ve suddenly realized basic things that we have taken for granted, like the operations of the post office and the census, are not necessarily secure. At Evans, we’re stepping into a national movement with UW’s undergraduate programs to develop more pathways to public service careers. People across the university’s majors can see themselves as a chemist, or an engineer, or anthropologist, doing work related to the public good and to improving public service. Coming out of the pandemic, there is urgency to turn things around. I feel really grateful to be part of one of the best public universities in the country to do that work.


What led to your interest in social policy?

My father and mother were teachers, and they would complain that policy managers don’t understand what it takes to be there for kids and meet them where they are. So I’ve always been interested in how you take the insights of front-line people who don’t think of themselves as policy-makers — such as nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers and social workers — and build a system that supports their insights rather than negating them.

When I was right out of college, I had the good fortune of working for a children’s policy advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. I could see the significance of policy research in shaping national discussions.

Yet, when policy schools were created in universities back in the 1970s, there was a naïve idea that policymakers’ ideas get passed in laws, and then people on the ground do what the law said. But implementation almost never happens that way. My parents weren’t coming to work to implement national educational policy; they were coming to work because they thought they were helping kids learn.

Hundreds of thousands of people in this country are implementing public policy, but they’re doing it with their own understanding of what’s the right thing to do. So policy implementation rests, in large part, on helping groups, organizations and systems carry out actions aligned with the policy’s intent.


You point to the human-centered design of social programs in Denmark. Are there ways we can adapt that approach?

A lot of my research has focused on how to use human-centered design to reduce administrative burden. We talk about the psychological, learning and compliance costs to people. Think about the experience of getting a driver’s license. For some of us, that’s the only time we interact with a public agency, we set aside time, and it can be an inconvenience. But for other people, they can spend hours and days getting the right documents, taking time away from work, finding transportation to the licensing office, navigating these complex government systems that have been developed in a top-down way.

Human-centered design looks at where we can reduce that administrative burden. One example is the cash-welfare system: For the last 25 years, there’s been an incredible amount of administrative burden for families to receive even temporary assistance. At the Future Services Institute at the University of Minnesota, we worked with local governments to create an app so that when someone comes in for cash assistance and they have to submit documents, they can take a picture of a document, upload it and have that count as an official record so that they can continue to work and not spend their time going to various local offices. When you think about the consequences of poverty on everything that people have to balance and manage, government interactions often make it worse for people.

So design reflects a society’s belief in government. We have a lot of work ahead to redesign public systems that are not working right now.