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Power dynamics in research

What is power?

Power is the ability to influence a situation. It is relative to where you fit within a situation, culture, or system. Power is not good or bad, it's how it is used or distributed that determines its value.

Power can be hoarded or shared. An individual’s role on a project can determine what actions and choices are available to them. Power that is hoarded, or unequally held, can lead to inequity. By sharing power in our work, we help the government advance towards more equitable outcomes.

How power shows up in research

As government designers building products and services for agencies, we have the power to influence participation, planning, and decisions on our projects.

Our partners give us power when we’re brought into help with a project. We share power when we bring impacted communities and stakeholders into the project to influence or make decisions.

Consider how you might share power with people who have a stake in the outcomes of the project and are currently excluded. Every stage of the product development cycle is an opportunity for you and your team to foster an empowering work environment and to share power within the team and with the public.

Formal (positional) vs. informal power

Formal power comes from an official position held within an organizational or social structure. This type of power is given to you from that structure and usually comes with legitimate power to act in the organization. Depending on the position, the authority may vary.

As government designers, formal power might look like:

  • Determining who to involve as participants and what that participation looks like
  • Deciding on agendas or goals, metrics of success, and priorities
  • Being in the role of facilitator
  • Defining insights and recommendations based on users’ input (e.g. user research, observations, etc.)
  • Deciding who has access to information and the level of transparency in sharing information

Informal power is intrinsic to you and often based on your skills or perceived expertise, characteristics, or personal attributes (e.g. access to information/resources, leveraging social networks or relationships).

As government designers, informal power might look like:

  • Recruiting from your own personal or professional network for user research
  • Applying design frameworks on your projects based on your trainings, education, or social networks
  • Introducing yourself in a user research setting by title, tenure, or professional experience
  • Framing research questions differently for different users based on your understanding of how they are impacted by the problem

How we can share power

As government employees and designers, we hold both formal and informal power when working on projects. We hold official positions that give us authority and have experience and expertise that influence our decisions. Decision making is one of the greatest forms of power we have in our projects. We often have power to decide who participates, when decisions are made, by whom, and according to what criteria.

Including those most impacted as decision makers is a primary way to share power. The City of Philadelphia describes sharing power as a spectrum of how a community is engaged:

  • Informed: The project team makes decisions and communicates them to community members.
  • Consulted: The project team makes decisions based on input from community members.
  • Collaborator: The project team and community members make decisions together.
  • Community-owned: The community members make decisions and communicate them to the government.

How to address power in research

Name and acknowledge the power difference

Power shows up in visible and invisible ways. To be able to shift power, you have to be able to name what types of power and power dynamics exist and their role and potential impact on your project. Here are some ways to help identify power dynamics on your project:

  • Identify who is impacted or plays a role in what you’re designing (e.g stakeholders, impacted communities, project team).
  • Identify the types of power these roles have (e.g. decision making, money, information, relationships)
    • With your project team, use the 18F only, positionality wheel tool to help collectively reflect on your identities, including more visible factors (e.g. race, gender, age) and other invisible facets (e.g. ability status, class, education, languages), and how that might lead to potential power dynamics, privilege, or biases that might influence what you’re designing.
  • Visually map the roles and their respective power dynamics. There’s no one way to map power. Mapping power can start from a stakeholder influence map or a systems map of the problem space by adding types of power as an additional lens.

Shift power

Once you’ve identified the power differentials and dynamics at play, define specific opportunities to shift power to those most impacted. Here are some ways to help shift power in your project:

  • Find opportunities to include impacted communities as decision makers on your project
    • Decide with impacted communities on how you want to make decisions on the project (e.g. unanimous, democratic, etc.)
    • Allow communities to lead and facilitate in project rituals and meetings (e.g. standups, sprint planning, executive readouts)
    • Provide options for research participants (e.g. turn cameras on/off, not share raw notes with broader project team, decide who attends interviews, etc.). There are many opportunities to provide options to participants when conducting research.
  • Create space and time for community participation
    • Provide time during design and research activities for people to tell their story, in their own words, in addition to meeting your objectives
    • Build in additional time on projects to allow communities to move at their own pace
  • Compensate participants for their time and contributions to the project
  • Identify community assets or resources (e.g. community services or programs, local skills or capabilities, hospitals, community-based organizations) and find ways to mobilize or enhance those assets. You can document and visualize asset maps in different ways. Here is one template.
  • Return value to the research participants/communities as quickly as you benefit from their lived experiences by:
    • Providing resources for additional information on your topic
    • Finding answers to questions they may have on your topic
    • Sharing the outcomes of the research with them
    • Including them in shaping insights and narratives. Bring in the people who you’re quoting to help clarify what was heard and to validate findings to make sure you elevate people’s voices and don’t speak for them.
    • Giving ownership, however possible, in what you build. Full community ownership may not be possible (e.g. communities managing a federal website); however, finding ways for communities to decide or influence decisions are possible (e.g. creating sustainable feedback loops between communities and agencies).
    • Providing opportunities to build skill sets (e.g. “learn by doing” through project participation)

Shifting power is a continual process. There may be things we can’t do now but hope to in the future (e.g. giving full decision making power to the community members). Our work is to help pave a path to share power more easily and systematically with every project that we do.

Further reading

These links do not imply endorsement but are shared here as other resources on this topic:

18F User Experience Guide

An official website of the GSA’s Technology Transformation Services

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