The White House’s latest Executive Order is pushing agencies to build better citizen experiences. In this article, I share three tips for how agencies can leverage technology and processes to wisely seize the moment.
How do you empathize with the citizens you serve? That’s the key question government agencies must ask themselves in light of President Biden’s Executive Order (EO) on transforming the federal customer experience. The document makes it clear that agencies need to stop doing things the old way, because that old way is no longer viable when building relationships with constituents.
There’s a lot of work to be done to meet the EO’s requirements. Here are some starting points.
Understand what users are seeing, feeling, and thinking
A large number of users may be abandoning your website or app at a specific point — but do you know why? Is it because the site’s too hard to use? Not delivering the information that’s most important to the user? Some other reason?
The only way to find out is by asking. If possible, interview a handful of users one-on-one. You don’t need to speak with thousands of people; five or six can usually provide a good representation of the wider population. Ask them about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking as they use your services. What works for them? What doesn’t? What are they struggling with? What can be improved? Use their feedback to drive the next iteration of your online services.
Get permission to record the sessions, but don’t let the first interview be the last. Continue to follow up periodically to see if their thinking or behaviors have changed. You’ll probably learn something new about your citizens’ experiences that you can apply to future iterations of your services.
The EO estimates the annual paperwork burden on citizens to be “in excess of 9 billion hours”— an unnecessary “time tax” on the public.
Where did the time go? Perhaps it went to context switching as users went to multiple agencies for services. Maybe it went to completing mounds of paperwork to receive a grant or loan forgiveness.
To rectify these issues, the EO calls for greater inter- and cross-agency collaboration. For instance, according to the EO, a citizen who moves should only have to update their residency once and have their information automatically shared with the agencies of their choice.
Reduce the time tax by taking a holistic view of users’ experiences as they move across agencies. Examine what could go wrong as information is exchanged between Agencies A and B, and look for ways to quickly remediate potential problems.
Consider implementing common platforms that allow your team to develop applications more quickly, easily share information, and issue updates that remediate issues. Adopting continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) practices will help you roll out new features more quickly, resulting in more satisfied constituents and more engaged developers.
Finally, the EO calls for the government to “design services in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate.” That includes people who might be physically impaired or have lower cognitive skills, restricted motor capabilities, or other accessibility challenges. Please also consider how people self-identify in terms of their race or gender.
Go further than best practices by including ALT text with images, short descriptive text, or other accessibility standards. Apply what you learned during the user interviews and put yourself in the users’ shoes. Then, start updating outdated processes. For example, when developing submission forms, consider not limiting users to a single choice between male or female or asking them to pigeonhole themselves into a single race. Instead, ask: Do we really need this information and, if so, how can we present it in a way that is more appropriate and empathetic to users’ distinct personalities?
Most importantly, ensure your teams are representative of the public they’re serving. A team with a healthy mix of employees from different cultural backgrounds is more likely to create services that reflect those backgrounds and appeal to a wider range of people.
The EO is a watershed moment in our country’s effort to build better citizen experiences. Let’s use technology and processes wisely to seize the moment.
Jim Tyrrell, a senior principal solutions architect for Red Hat, has more than two decades of experience in software development and delivery. He has spent more than a decade exploring the intersection of design and software development.