Project Management Institute

Citizen-Focused Government Transformation

Transcript

ANNE PETERSEN

Governments are complicated. So are the people that work in them.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

But you know what could be less complicated? The interactions between people and their governments. That’s ahead on Projectified®.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

When you need to deal with your government, you know it can be confusing, convoluted and frustrating. Whether you’re applying for a visa or work permit, or voting, or just going online to try to figure out how to do one of those things—we’re generally not talking about an Apple Store, Amazon Prime-type of experience. And that’s a problem. Good experiences correlate with increases in trust, compliance and general faith in public-sector competence. They’re also cheaper, because happy customers don’t call back later to try again, and they don’t vent bitterly on social media.

Governments are noticing. In the last few years, there’s been a trend among governments to try to take a more customer-focused approach, often by spinning up a government design agency that exists to help various other government agencies learn to implement the customer-experience strategies and mindset that are working in the private sector. From New Zealand to Chile, Singapore to Portugal, Madagascar, South Korea, Denmark, these design centers are popping up everywhere.

One example is 18F in the United States, which has partnered with a huge range of agencies since its inception in 2014, from the Army and FBI to the Securities and Exchange Commission and even NASA, the U.S. space program. Let’s welcome Anne Petersen, who joined 18F in 2018 after spending several years in the private sector and who is 18F’s director of experience design.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

I feel like if I tell somebody that government websites and offices score low on customer experience, often you get that nod or eye roll. You know, foolish bureaucrats, of course, that’s the way it is. But my sense is that there are some real and legitimate reasons why this is a struggle for them. So at that level, why is this so hard for governments to get right?

ANNE PETERSEN

There’s a lot of things at play. Governments are complicated. So are the people that work in them, you know? That’s a thing we all know. In terms of like key barriers to success, we actually did some research on this, so you can find that actually in our blog post entitled “Barriers to Government’s Adoption of User-Centered Design and How to Address Them,” which when we interviewed a bunch of folks experiencing this from the inside of government, the barriers that they identified were things like not having enough money, time or expertise that is in-house.

Also, a misconception that user research is a one-time thing that you can do and be done with, and it’s not; it’s a continuous cycle. Also, a perception that saving money isn’t always celebrated due to the way that annual appropriations work in the government. And finally, kind of a need to quantify successes that might be difficult when we’re improving experiences.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

The agency model seems to be the way that a lot of governments are trying to address this. How are those projects structured at 18F, as you collaborate with your government clients?

ANNE PETERSEN

I would say our model follows what happens in industry as well as in government in terms of getting everybody together from the very start of the project. Making sure that everybody’s assumptions and understanding of the problem space are collectively shared and then working from there to do the research with actual users and actual people who both use the product. That is usually sometimes the public; sometimes these are public servants.

So working with them to understand what their pain points are and possibilities in terms of how to address those, but it also sometimes works behind the scenes. So we might also be working with the administrators of these products. For example, like the front-line staff selling permits in national parks or the folks answering the phones when someone calls into USA.gov. Those sorts of approaches so that we cover both what people are actually experiencing and the things that come up in aggregate to the people who most often do kind of the customer service for those, whatever it is the public needs.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

It seems like the biggest jump may be getting in that customer-centric frame of mind from “we made a thing or we provide a service” to thinking about the journey or the specific need of the person coming to you. So how do you work to instill that? Like you said, it’s not just, I assume you’re involved for a period of time to sort of spin up the original thing, but you’re also trying to help these agencies think that way.

ANNE PETERSEN

Absolutely. Not only think that way but sustainably continue these practices into the future. That’s a huge portion of our work, and it’s something we really pride ourselves on in terms of being able to coach and model what we do such that they can pick it up and continue to do it once we’re gone. So in order to get everybody on the same page with that, sometimes we have our partners observe usability tests with us so that they see someone trying to go through this process and then understand what they run into that keeps them from doing what they need to do and getting the services or whatever it is that they might need.

And understanding that firsthand, in some cases because this is the first time they’ve seen it, it can be really eye-opening. Like people not realizing the places where people get hung up. And once that eye-opening occurs, people see the value and need to serve people well by asking how it’s going for them, what they need to be able to do this more efficiently or is there a problem with the process itself or is there something we can do to provide them easier access online, for example.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Can you think of a specific project where that user-centric mentality caused a lightbulb to go on?

ANNE PETERSEN

Yeah, for sure. So we worked with the National Forest Service to create what we call Open Forest. Open Forest allows you to buy permits right now just for Christmas trees, to go into a national forest and cut down your own Christmas tree, during the time that that is appropriate obviously and within certain guidelines, which we also publish on that site.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

No redwoods.

ANNE PETERSEN

For example. That would be tough also for an individual, but the lightbulb really went off for them, and we saw them really wholeheartedly endorse not only how we’re doing usability testing, how we’re improving the experience of applying for a permit, but also then turn around and kind of like advocate for it to their colleagues, which is really exciting to see because we weren’t involved at all but yet they were right there being able to say, “You know what’s a pain point is,” or, “You know what’s really hard for people is,” and this is a process. Like getting some of these permits, people would have to go in person before we created Open Forest, which meant we were getting feedback from the public saying, “Normally I’d have to drive 30 miles to go pick up this permit and then come back when I wanted to actually cut down the tree. So this has made my life way easier,” which is really heartening to see. And they really were encouraged by it.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

And is that a case where sort of after you had done the core project, you saw the Forest Service sort of able to think from that perspective more readily on their own after that?

ANNE PETERSEN

Yeah, 100 percent. They turned around and kept it moving. Their next phase of efforts includes other types of permits being available online like this. And we’re not involved in that anymore at all as far as I know. We have moved on actually. They still want our help, but they want our help with other things. So they’ve enlisted us to work on other parts of timber permitting.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How do you measure success, and also what’s at stake?

ANNE PETERSEN

There’s a lot at stake. Our potential reach is huge. Ideally, it would be great if, you know, with our efforts we could materially improve the life of everyone living in or is from the U.S. that has to interact with the government at some point in their life, even if that’s just by preventing them from having a tough time with a government website. I certainly consider that to be a win.

You understand what’s at stake in terms of when there are failures in government services that makes it not only tough but sometimes life-threateningly so depending on the situation in terms of disasters or whatever the case might be if they can’t get access to what they need. So we understand the stakes, and the stakes are high. We take really seriously that responsibility. Also in terms of accessibility, making sure that everyone can get what they need, no matter what their level of interaction with the World Wide Web might be, for example.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Then let’s hit design thinking. I think the sort of designing with the customer in mind is a big part of this, but what other aspects of design thinking have you found to be particularly challenging for governments to take on and meaningful for them to implement?

ANNE PETERSEN

Yeah, certainly these approaches are kind of a surprise to people who aren’t familiar with them. But once, as I mentioned, once people see them in action and see how they work, including finding potential, like, failure points quickly, they get it. And those failure points can prevent us from going down a path and frankly wasting money. We can get to that point quicker and recognize it easier as such that we don’t spend a lot of time on something that ultimately isn’t going to work. And that’s why usability testing ends up being so crucial: that we can discover those really easily early in the process and not have to spend time on it.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Is there one particular challenge that you think is the most daunting right now that you’d like to see design sort of crack in the world of government, either here or abroad in the next few years?

ANNE PETERSEN

I mean certainly there’s always going to be improvements to be made. So it’s only continuing to work towards improvements in one area that we can demonstrate that it’s doable to others and show how they might do it for themselves. And I think, just frankly, the fact that this is an effort and this is a concentrated effort by not only us but lots of other organizations, and I would say not only here in the U.S. but also many other countries, is really positive, and it’s really great to see how so many are helping government adopt some of the principles we hold very dear. Such as, being open as much as possible, in terms of being transparent. That enables more venues for people to contribute feedback. And once you get that feedback, you can truly listen and address those concerns, which I think will improve everything for everyone.

So going back to the principles, I would say being open, being human-centered, being iterative so that you can discover what things work and what things don’t really quickly are some of the really core things, along with being remote-first, that 18F really believes in. And then keeping those lines of communication open. All of that is really helpful to governments to understand and correct things that might be going well or might not be going so well. And also showing people how you’re responding to that feedback, that increases people’s trust in government and in the product that you’re creating. So those are some tips and hopes for us to continue in the future.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

We, the citizens of the world, have grown entitled in the age of the internet and of big data. In a good way. Smart digital companies have shown us what an intuitive, well-designed customer experience can look like, and, well, now we want that. We expect it—from the brands we buy and also, increasingly, from our governments.

Governments around the world are getting the message, too. Look at Estonia, whose nationwide effort to create a digital-first state made PMI’s list of the 50 Most Influential Projects of the last half-century. Estonia is moving to streamline and simplify all manner of government services, from voting to healthcare, and the cornerstone of those efforts is a six-year-old e-residency program that enables professionals from anywhere in the world to acquire a sort of virtual citizenship that allows them to operate an Estonia-based, EU-based business.

Thanks to efforts like that, and to outfits like 18F, governments are proving that they are capable of executing projects based on smart, user-centric design. For now, that budding movement is mostly confined to websites and online interactions. But what if governments actually get good at asking themselves questions like, “What would be most helpful to a citizen, here?” and, “How could this experience be more pleasant or straightforward?” What if design thinking actually becomes second nature to, say, taxing authorities or state-run healthcare administrators?

I hesitate to use the word “revolution” here, because it doesn’t feel quite right given the context. But I think I can speak for more or less all of us when I say that would be a huge deal and a most welcome change.

NARRATOR

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