Why agencies must take a user centered design approach to address urgent needs revealed by COVID (but persistent beyond)

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This content is provided by EY.

As the pandemic drives more funding towards agencies to modernize their IT, it’s more important than ever to be thoughtful when figuring out how to spend the money. Agencies should take the time to look at the processes that the users have to go through, be they employees or customers, to discover where technology may be able to streamline and facilitate those processes. While User Centered Design is not a revolutionary new concept, it is one that more – and ultimately all – agencies need to be using across all technology and business transformation projects. EY’s approach for delivering these critical programs recognizes the criticality of having User Centered Design at the forefront of these engagements.

COVID is exacerbating problems across all agencies, but especially those who provide critical human services.

One of the many issues related to the pandemic is the massive volume of new people that have never had to apply for some form of assistance. This population is discovering for the first time how difficult the system can be to navigate in order to receive basic support. Across the board, there is a backlog of support requests that have simply overloaded already stressed applications and processes.

As disruptive as the pandemic has been (and will continue to be for some time), it’s also showcasing opportunities to help agencies better serve their constituents. Here are a few ways how this can be embedded in modernization activities.

Take the opportunity to get to know all users – not just external. Your internal users need attention as well!

“It’s very easy to focus on the public when you think of customer experience or user centered design. That said, there is a huge opportunity to extend this thinking to government employees and contractors who are responsible for helping fulfill the requests. By asking these resources how things work, and focusing on the elements of the process they like (and dislike), you can often improve the process, and reduce or eliminate certain manual process components,” said Jeffrey Bristow, government and public sector technology transformation lead at EY. “Through user centered design, you can determine that there are 10 steps involved in a process, six of which can be automated. And through automating those steps you’re inherently improving the experience, making it faster and enabling them to focus more on their core mission and less on administrivia that elongates the process. These manual processes are a contributor to agencies being completely overwhelmed with the backlog of requests.”

Recalibrate your definition of modernization to allow for small wins and incremental improvements

“Generally, when people hear the words transformation and modernization, they don’t think of subtle, digestible changes. The stigma associated with these efforts is that they are necessarily enormous undertakings that will take years. This does not have to be the case. Modernization is a journey, not a destination, and recognizing how technology can support all involved with the processes is a critical consideration when thinking through your modernization strategy,” Bristow said. “By embedding this perspective into your modernization plans, you can more confidently focus on individual programs or efforts based on agency needs and priorities, and not feel the need to implement everything at once. Because that’s where I think the concept of modernization becomes overwhelming.”

Don’t assume introducing technology will single-handedly address your pain points

Technologies like robotic process automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence can absolutely facilitate modernization. By automating those repetitive, manual tasks, agencies can streamline processes for their employees, who can then focus on higher value work. That means they can process the backlog faster, which makes for better customer experience for the constituent. And on top of all of that, it saves the agency money, because they aren’t just throwing personnel at the problems.

But it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to implement these technologies in a vacuum, just because of the way the budget has been drafted.

“I’ve never seen a project where tools like RPA or artificial intelligence were deployed to address a pain point be successful when implemented in a vacuum,” Bristow said. “More often than not, you just end up addressing a symptom of the underlying problems. Without getting perspective from the users and owners of the process, you’re not really allowing yourselves to tackle the root cause of the problem, which is where the true transformative value resides.”

But there’s a sort of balancing act going on here that agencies have to be aware of as they embark on their modernization journey. On the one hand, they need to have a holistic view of their problems, and they can’t just focus on the technology. It’s also the people, the processes, the culture. Agencies need to have awareness of all of these dimensions, or they’ll end up with a shiny new interface with the same core problems.

But on the other hand, they can’t allow themselves to be intimidated by the concepts of technology transformation or IT modernization, terms which automatically seem to suggest a scope that involves multiple years and billions of dollars.

At the end of the day, employing a user centered design approach is a win for everyone.  It helps cut overall program costs, improves the experience for internal and external end users, and helps reduce the time to serve clients.

“It gives you a greater understanding and alignment with your end users, which really improves adoption of the application, because they understand why things were done. It also cuts down on training cost, because the solution is built to intuitively support,” Bristow said. “My favorite part of deploying these transformative programs is when we hear directly from the user base that the new system improves their daily jobs.”

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