Why Citizen Input is Crucial to the Government Design Process


When developing new ways to deliver services, designers must expand their focus beyond the agency’s own operating interests to ensure they also create a satisfying experience for citizens.

Mark Forman is global head, vice president and general manager of Unisys' public sector and former chief information officer for the federal government. 

As digital technology practices such as modular procurement and DevOps become widely adopted across government, the gap between IT and operations is closing and benefits from the new approach are becoming clearer each day. Now, government must take the next step: close the gap between citizen-specific needs and the process for designing, developing and deploying digital government.

Whether agencies are implementing an application or enterprisewide solution, end-user input (from both citizens and government workers) is a requirement for success. In fact, the only path to success in digital government is the “moment of truth,” the point of interaction when a government delivers a service or solves a problem for its citizens.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

A recent example illustrates this challenge. A national government recently deployed a new application that enables citizens to submit questions to agency offices using their mobile devices. The mobile application, while functional and working to specifications, failed to address the core issue: Most citizens prefer asking questions via email, an option that was terminated when the new app was deployed.

Digital technologies offer government agencies numerous opportunities to cut costs and improve citizen services. But in the rush to implement new capabilities, IT professionals often neglect to consider fully their users’ preferences, knowledge, limitations and goals.

When developing new ways to deliver services, designers must expand their focus beyond the agency’s own operating interests to ensure they also create a satisfying experience for citizens. If not, the applications will likely be underutilized or even ignored, thus undermining the anticipated cost-savings and performance gains that set the project in motion.

Government executives also must recognize merely relying on user input creates a risk of “paving the cowpath”: innovations cannot significantly improve the customer experience if users do not recognize the value of new technologies in simplifying, making more worthwhile, or eliminating a task.

Many digital government playbooks and guidance direct IT organizations to create a satisfying citizen experience by incorporating user-centered design methodology into their projects. UCD is a process for ensuring a new solution or tool is designed from the perspective of users. Rather than forcing government workers or the public to adapt to the new solution, UCD helps create a solution tailored to their abilities, preferences and needs.

We have used UCD to successfully guide the design and deployment of new applications for numerous government clients worldwide. We have also seen UCD projects fail to deliver benefits of digital approaches when the approach is driven by users who resist change. Indeed, each government organization and project is unique.

My experience shows effective UCD is built upon four primary principles or guidelines:

  • Focus on the moment of truth. A new application or service must actually be something that citizens want and need via the channel used, and not just easy to use.
  • Optimize outcomes, not just processes. True transformation occurs when citizens’ expectations and needs remain the constant center of focus. Merely overlaying new technology on business as usual may provide a prettier interface, but success requires a clear benefit for the public at the moment of truth in the interaction with government.
  • Evolve processes over time to help citizens adapt to new applications. In most instances, citizens will make a smoother transition to new services when processes are changed gradually to be more intuitive rather than with an abrupt, flip-of-the-switch approach.
  • Combine UCD with robust DevOps. Agencies need a strong DevOps process to incorporate what they learn about citizens’ preferences and needs as they develop, test and deploy new citizen services.

The goal of innovation and technology should be to simplify government for citizens and help them get served or engage more effectively with government. By incorporating UCD into their design processes, government organizations can realize the full potential of mobile applications and other digital technologies to better serve citizens, while also reducing costs and improving overall mission capabilities.