A photo of Will Gossin
Will Gossin

In the City of Chicago, failing to purchase up-to-date city stickers for personal vehicles has contributed to tens of thousands of bankruptcies – and even thousands of transgenerational bankruptcies, which fall disproportionately on Black and Latino residents. How does this happen, and how can it be fixed?

These were questions tackled last year by the students in Leading with Innovation, a new class at the Harris School of Public Policy developed and taught by Will Gossin, a Harris lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation and associate director of student leadership programs.

The idea behind Leading with Innovation was to combine the rigorous quantitative research methods Harris Public Policy students learn in their core classes with entrepreneurship and innovation tools familiar to the start-up world. 

“I want to give students a repeatable process and framework that they can take into their future careers in order to initiate innovation within large organizations,” Gossin said. “The goal of all innovation is to change behavior and then to institutionalize it—to normalize what was new. Ultimately, all innovation seeks to become the status-quo. That reality may diminish the mythological shine of innovation for some, but that’s how real change is made. That’s what makes innovation worth pursuing.”

To do this, Gossin needed a problem for students to tackle. He was connected to the City Clerk’s office, where they had passionately begun addressing the serious issues facing the City Sticker program. In order to advance that policy focus, the overall goal for the class then became identifying ways to encourage Chicago residents to purchase the vehicle sticker, and thus avoid a ticketing and penalty system that has led tens of thousands of poor, mostly Black or Latino Chicagoans down a debt rabbit hole.

The class operated in phases to develop recommendations for the City Clerk’s office. Phase one was a four-week training consisting of reading, lecturing, and discussing in three fundamental areas: qualitative interviewing, human centered design, and prototyping.

Having established a new foundation of skills and perspectives, phase two consisted of two, three-week sprints during which the class identified stakeholders, formed teams, conducted field-based research, and tested real solutions. It was fast.

“I was going to currency exchanges where you can buy a city sticker, deep on the South Side, and just waiting in line talking to people about why they were buying the city sticker,” said AJ Calhoun, MPP’20, who was a student in last year’s class and is now Gossin’s graduate assistant and TA. “You’re spending $100 on this, what are you not spending $100 on this month?”

Based on the collected data, the class conducted a holistic analysis and re-formed new teams. These teams sought to discover, and ultimately recommend, what could be redesigned in the “user journey” that would encourage residents to increase city sticker compliance.

Calhoun’s team focused on an online tool people could use in the city sticker process.

“Each team had to go out into the world and try to manifest their prototype,” Calhoun said. “We had 7-10 days to do it, so it’s super scrappy, super boots-on-the-ground. There are very few opportunities in an academic setting to just go and do something like that. The amount of learning and feedback you get by just having to go out in the world and trying to invent something is unbelievable.”

Another team, including Sahrish Saleem, MPP’20, focused on educating the public on where city sticker funds end up.

“The city sticker is being used to repave roads, but people don’t feel like that money is going anywhere,” Saleem said. “It’s a process, and it takes a lot of time, so we wanted to create some sort of visualization so people would see the impact of the money spent and be more inclined to purchase a city sticker.”

Gossin's class provided recommendations to the Chicago City Clerk's office.

On the last day of class, students presented their recommendations to the Clerk’s office, resulting in two interventions the office agreed to adopt. The first was a change to the Clerk’s online portal, and the second was to require signage in currency exchanges educating people about city sticker compliance.

The very ability for people to continue purchasing city stickers in currency exchanges is also a direct result of the findings of the class, Gossin said.

“At the start of this project, the clerk’s team told us one of the things they were proud of in their recent reform-focused ordinance was that they were going to exclude the currency exchanges, whose fees are often viewed as predatory, from participating in the future sales process for city stickers,” Gossin said. “What the students were able to show through their research was that a currency exchange’s fee may actually be undervaluing the benefits they provide to their customers. In turned out that in the policy making process, the opportunity cost for these residents wasn’t being considered in quite the right way.

“Most people, in fact, viewed the currency exchanges as convenient, clean, and safe. They have this one-stop shop element that was really meaningful in their lives. If they were going to go to the clerk’s office instead of a currency exchange, they would have had to take the entire day off of work due to a combination of public transit and the Clerk’s limited hours and locations.”

For students in the class, the innovation toolbox they got out of the class is already starting to set them apart in their careers.

“I ended up starting an internship last summer with the Mayor of Chicago’s Office, and the  process in Leading with Innovation was enlightening as far as how the city needs to tackle problems,” Saleem said. “What are the challenges the City faces in implementing policy solutions? Now I can get creative and think outside of the box.”

And just as importantly, the ability to see direct change from their work was inspiring to the students, and exactly why they came to Harris.

“I renewed my city sticker recently, and saw that the website has changed based on the recommendations we made,” Calhoun said. “I think a lot of us at Harris are technocratic, incrementalist types of people who are really excited by seeing small changes that make the world just one percent more equitable.

“At the end of the day, my ability to comprehend game theory is not going to impact a person who lives on 85th and Cottage and has gotten six tickets because the clerk’s office is doing a poor job of administering the city sticker. But to see my work manifested in the real world, with the hope that it makes a difference in that person’s life -- that’s the most exciting, most gratifying feeling.”