On The Forefront of ‘Civic Tech’
Espy Thomson ’21 is working to make government more accessible
Espy Thomson ’21 says she used to think of government as being “all about policy and politicians; pretty detached from the actual experience of most of the public.” But her own recent experience as a member of a “civic tech” corps launched by the White House has given her a more complete—and hopeful—view.
As one of 48 new members of the General Services Administration’s U.S. Digital Corps, Thomson will spend the next two years as a UX Researcher, identifying opportunities and designing solutions to help make government websites and other technological resources more effective and accessible to the public. Among her current projects is an effort to identify if the existing consent process for researchers using government information poses a barrier to public participation.
Thomson, who grew up in western Massachusetts, took classes at Smith while in high school about race and gender and neuropsychology. After suffering a series of concussions while playing ultimate frisbee that delayed the start of her college career, she spent two years at Colorado College before transferring to Smith, where she majored in environmental science and policy.
Her first job after earning her degree was serving as a Human-Centered Design Fellow at Dartmouth College, helping to manage that college’s inaugural design corps. Thomson was chosen from among more than 1,000 applicants nationwide to be part of the second cohort of the federal Digital Corps, which she officially joined last July.
Her work with the federal government has been inspiring. “I’m learning so much about how the government actually operates and the people who serve,” Thomson says. “There are a lot of amazing people behind the scenes who are doing work we don’t get to hear about. It’s really hopeful.”
Here’s what else Thomson had to say about her experience in the Digital Corps.
What led you to want to join the Digital Corps?
“I think many of us circle through the big questions of ‘what kind of impact do we want to make in our lives?’ and maybe at a deeper level, ‘what do we have to offer the world?’ While working at Dartmouth as their Human-Centered Design Fellow, I found myself thinking back to the fulfilling work I had done during my time at Smith with local city government [including consultancy projects on trail networks and Main Street redesign]. I decided that my next step toward answering some of my big life questions was to take my design skills back to government. I wasn’t specifically looking for work at the federal level, but the support and mentoring offered by the U.S. Digital Corps fellowship drew me in.”
What does civic tech mean to you?
“I originally thought that government was only composed of policy people. But implementation is just as important a part of government as policy creation, and at this point, most of the ways the public accesses government service is through technology. Civic technologists are people who work to bridge government policies and bureaucracies with technologies that can help the public get the support they need.”
What is a typical day like for you?
“I’m not sure I have a typical day! As part of the fellowship, I’m staffed to a program in the General Services Administration called 10x, where we solicit ideas from federal employees on ways the government can use technology to serve the public better. As part of the delivery team, I then investigate, test, and de-risk the ideas, so that government agencies don’t spend years and billions of dollars on an idea only to find out it isn’t impactful. If an idea is novel and promising, we work to prototype it and build it for deployment.
One of my projects—Intuitive Consent—has a general premise that the current consent process for user research in government can pose a barrier to participation by members of the public and might be more focused on protecting the government than supporting the research participant. Our team has been investigating that hypothesis to see if there is a real problem to solve, and depending on what we find, this project could help standardize researcher consent processes for the public.”
What’s something surprising you have learned about government service?
“I’ve been surprised to learn about the amazing and talented individuals in the government who are dedicated to turning policies into realities. It’s as if these groups of people are working to dock a giant ship. The politicians send the ship sailing out into the ocean, but there is a whole other group of people who figure out where the ship is docking and how the public can get what they need from the ship in an accessible, simple way.”
What elements of your Smith education prepared you for the work you are doing now?
“In college, I really grappled with the tension between fitting myself into a certain academic box and exploring the topics that interested me through an interdisciplinary lens. When I transferred to Smith, I was particularly drawn to the Landscape Studies program and the Design Thinking Initiative because I saw professors who were infusing creative thinking and learning through hands-on activities into their classes.
“I began to realize that design doesn’t apply solely to how something looks. It’s the creative process through which people solve problems. You can design an experience. You can design a service. You can design a landscape and how people interact in or with it. Through the work I was doing, I understood that our entire world is designed—it’s designed with some people in mind and some people forgotten. I wanted to be part of this growing field of people called designers who use interdisciplinary methods to make sure that more voices get heard and considered when a product or service is being created.”
What advice do you have for fellow Smithies who might be interested in the emerging field of civic tech?
“I’d try to take a design thinking course at Smith or look for an introductory design course online and start exploring. I’ve learned the most through in-person, hands-on project experiences, which are pretty important in the field. I would also identify what benefits you have had from a liberal arts education and try to find positions that are more holistic and can play to your research and leadership strengths, rather than being mainly tech-focused.”
What do you hope will come out of your work with the Digital Corps?
“This fellowship is meant to not only support the development of skills, but also what for many fellows is their first entry into federal service. I want to better understand the public sector and how my human-centered design skills can be applied there. I think many people hope for a big win to create innovative change in government. While that would be amazing, I hope that I can create some small wins in my work that will help my agency function more smoothly and push a project idea forward that could have immense potential or impact down the road.”