Legislate feelings? If it helps CX, maybe it’s time

Jay Huie, CIO for Coreonyx and former deputy assistant commissioner at GSA, explains why Congress may need to articulate on qualitative metrics for bills.

It’s time to start legislating feelings. This insight came to me after many years in federal information technology as an engineer, subject matter expert, technical manager and chief information officer. Functionally, I’ve served in many roles, largely with a focus on the, perhaps inaptly named, “hard skills” that come with those responsibilities.

Recently, I was at the ACT-IAC Digital Transformation Summit, where many great speakers covered common IT topics like artificial intelligence, data and even the Federal Risk Authorization and Management Program. However, there was also an underlying discussion about the human center of technology trends. During a lull between panelists, I had an enlightening discussion with Dr. Nicole Togno about her research and evaluation experience for government programs, specifically about how both quantitative and qualitative metrics are needed to better understand the experience.

The morning keynote speaker, Alexis Bonnell, the chief information officer of the Air Force Research Lab, noted the public’s low trust in government and advocated that increasing human-centric trust is a key component of successfully trusting digital transformation. Dr. Togno and I discussed how trust in an outcome is highly related to the emotional experience, much the same way pleasant wait staff make, or ruin, a nice meal.

Taking a black box approach

Reflecting on those insights later, I realized that legislation almost uniformly describes the mechanisms and math behind a benefit but rarely, if ever, articulates the intended experience. While it’s commendable that Congress focuses on definitions and details, what if what’s needed to build a stronger foundation of trust is articulating the intended experience of a service? Should the public feel honor, gratitude or, perhaps, urgency when they receive a service? Yet when is the last time Congress legislated any intended perception of an experience?

All technology encodes inherent bias and beliefs. Asking Congress to articulate feelings for the intended experience would give the public a chance to see those values expressed and give the executive branch a better basis to balance tradeoffs when implementing legislation.
For a moment, imagine a government service — whether taxes, disaster relief, housing, medical care or any other decision — reduced to a coin flip. By no means am I advocating the outcome of any service actually be relegated to random chance. This thought exercise is a common technique that IT practitioners use where we may, temporarily, treat a part of the system as a “black box.” This approach allows us to focus on expected behaviors without getting mired in implementation details.

Most people would argue a coin flip is relatively fair, even if recent research shows there can be a small discrepancy in outcomes. However, some interesting questions arise when we set the internal elements of the “black box” aside and think about what the citizen experience (CX) would be for the public when making a submission to, and receiving a determination from, this kind of service. How might you help build trust in “the system” and provide a positive experience regardless of the outcome or the mechanisms for how it was derived?

DC case study

In essence, it boils down to Maya Angelou’s observation that: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
During the COVID public health emergency I served as the CIO for the DC Superintendent’s Office, and we were tasked with implementing components of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES). This included feeding students who might not have been able to eat at school. Generally, the quantitative metric was that any student out of school for five days or more qualified for benefits. However, we faced the difficult task of understanding the nuances that metric entailed. For example, did weekends count and what about holidays?

As a city, we deliberated extensively and focused on the human factors at play, something that’s more immediate at the state and local level of government. However, the congressionally-mandated guidance missed a critical chance to guide the public’s experience. In short, it left unspecified how families and students should feel about the experience and risked creating “tunnel vision” by only specifying technical criteria, with possibly multiple differing versions across 50 states and several territories including the District of Columbia.

As anyone who’s ever been part of IT knows, the English language isn’t always the best mechanism for capturing requirements and digital acquisition trends have shifted to a “statement of objectives” approach rather than attempting to exhaustively capture every requirement in a solicitation. Executive branch agencies would still need researchers to continue to see if an intended effect was, in fact, generated.

It’s all about building trust

We would still expect implementation teams across industry or government to measure the lived experiences of people, not just assume the anticipated experiences hold for everyone. However, it seems much of the uncertainty and mistrust around government services comes from the interplay of caveats that attempt to quantify the infinitely complex and ultimately unquantifiable representation of our public.

Given that the legislative branch represents the “voice of the people,” it stands to reason they should articulate on qualitative metrics, such as how they expect people to feel when benefiting from their government, just as much as important quantitative details.

When trust in government is at a premium, and services are more scrutinized than ever, it is imperative that Congress legislate with the heart as well as the head.

Lawmakers have the opportunity to embed feelings within a legislative intent and help government forge a deeper connection with the public. The speakers at the Digital Transformation Summit talked often about modernization being a choice taken at the intersection of practice and potential as a technologist I think it’s time for our legislation to reflect not just the intended letter of the law, but the spirit of our collective aspirations and values of society as well.

Jay Huie is the chief information officer for Coreonyx and a former deputy assistant commissioner at the General Services Administration and a White House Leadership Fellow.

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