Insight by National Government Services

Human-centered design enables government to improve customer experience in times of transition

Citizens seek out government services during times of transition, when they’re most vulnerable. Human-centered design can help government connect with citizen...

When people interact with the government, it’s often during personal, vulnerable and critical junctures of their lives. They may be entering the country for the first time or applying for citizenship. They may be recently retired, applying for Social Security benefits or seeking answers after enrolling into the Medicare Program. They may be economically disadvantaged and applying for Medicaid, or Pell Grants to pay for education. Citizens come to the government in times of transition, in need of assistance or guidance, and they expect government services they depend upon to work for them. That’s why focusing on experience is imperative.

President Biden’s recent executive order on transforming customer experience shows the importance of improving confidence in government through empathy and connection. Strengthening that trust in government requires getting people the information and support they need as efficiently and painlessly as possible.

“When people think of interacting with the federal government, unfortunately, they often think of slow customer service, broken website links or lengthy phone calls with an automated menu. The executive order shows recognition that a problem exists,” said Kegan Saajasto, business strategy planning director at National Government Services. “These interactions can be critical moments in a person’s life, so the process needs to be streamlined to help get that person through that moment seamlessly.”

Another key directive the executive order makes is that federal employees and contractors should not assume they know all the answers, but rather, understand and collaborate with constituents through the process, because they’re the ones navigating it. The user’s input is necessary to develop comprehensive and valuable reforms. The first major investment agencies need to make, before spending on technological solutions, is the time and energy to understand the user’s journey and pain points, to identify opportunities for lasting change.

Agencies should embrace human-centered design and the methods it incorporates to create a more streamlined user experience. Furthermore, it’s important that agencies understand that human-centered design is not just an IT problem; it’s an agencywide cultural commitment.

“The HCD process requires partnering, learning new skills, changing mindsets, and really embracing challenges together. Sometimes people get caught up in a process and they just throw it over to IT, but that’s not sustainable,” said Rita Breen, agile and human-centered design practices director at National Government Services. “Organizational change requires commitment, time and energy. When you think about customer experience, we must commit to changing how we work.”

Shifting the organization’s mindset requires abandoning biases and preconceived notions about the way things work. It’s common for people to get too focused on certain processes or tools. That’s why agencies should cultivate close connections with their constituents. The needs of the community will change, and agencies must be ready to change with them.

It is important to recognize that building a relationship and earning citizen’s trust may be a challenge. Citizens may be skeptical, convincing them that the effort to improve is sincere can be a hurdle of its own. However, once they’re willing to discuss the process, they often have troves of feedback to share.

“It’s crazy how much users have been sitting at their desk saying, ‘I hate this step in the process,’ when that feedback would help the government make meaningful change,” Breen said. “When you’re able to make small adjustments based on the feedback the results are incredible. Once you have users engaged and invested, when you move forward, there’s often less resistance and more alignment.”

Substantial innovation demands buy-in across an entire organization. Achieving that buy-in may require some change. For example, it may involve shuffling the workforce in order to ensure the right people are in the right roles. It may involve new priorities or a modified hiring process. It may involve retraining or reskilling.

“It’s critical that everybody is working towards the same goals. Understanding citizen experience, human-centered design, and trying to identify and understand what drives satisfaction is the first step toward making an impact,” Saajasto said. “That’s where you need to start to make meaningful change to improve the lives of the people we serve.”

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