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Human-Centered Design’s Key Role in Improved Government Services

Leaders at GSA, IRS and VA discuss new digital services that help customers navigate government services.

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Human-centered design is playing a key part in various digital services, including a new upcoming app from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

COVID-19 accelerated the transition to digital services, as many paper-driven processes needed to be made accessible online. Federal leaders at GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s Digital Services Series: Customer Experience virtual event last week noted how their agencies have harnessed the power of technology to make improvements in the overall customer experience.

Karen Howard, director of the Office of Online Services at IRS, said her team had to pivot quickly to deliver more online services and applications.

“The pandemic drastically accelerated our plans, and like all organizations, the IRS had to pivot and prioritize strategies and resources,” Howard said. “We launched new online services to assist taxpayers with their economic impact payments and their advanced child tax credit payments.”

Amid this shift, tech leaders leveraged human-centered design to develop best practices, design standards and ensure ease of use. Barbara Morton, deputy chief veterans experience officer at VA, said this approach stems from the agency’s 2018 relaunch of

“We wanted to continue to apply the human-centered design methodology and mindset as part of the strategy to redesign the website,” Morton said. “When you see it today, you will see a much more user-friendly website … and you are designing and iterating all the way to the users.”

IRS is taking a similar approach with its platform, As part of the Taxpayer First Act, the agency has accelerated its efforts to create a seamless taxpayer experience, bolstering digital services and enhancing accessibility.

“We’re looking to navigation, we’re looking to ‘content as king’ and ‘engagement as queen,’” Howard said. “There are a lot of the other things that really help the taxpayer engage with us in a way that they want to, when and how they want to, without having to visit field offices or even call in. It is a very unique, bespoke situation.”

The General Services Administration is in a unique position to work across government and create shared digital services, said the agency’s Nico Papafil, director of 10x. His team recently launched a new project called the Benefits Eligibility Awareness Resource Service (BEARS) to bring together services across multiple federal agencies to help the public navigate government and better understand benefits eligibility.

“What if a person only needed to go to one place … to see what their options are? What if we didn’t have to make them navigate the government? [BEARS is] a great example of a cross-agency tool,” Papafil said. “We’re looking at it more holistically. It’s like a ‘federal front door’ for certain components of what the public may need.”

As agencies boost digital services, many leaders are taking a “fail fast, fail forward, fail small” approach to test services on a small scale, gain lessons learned, then implement best practices on a larger model. Papafil said this iterative approach enables agencies to be agile and pivot as changes arise, like new technologies, leadership or priorities.

“We’re saying let’s spend $20,000 to verify and validate the problem. Let’s really understand this problem space,” Papafil said. “Taking that user-centered approach, being agile, being lean, allows us to fail small and really move more promising projects forward for the right solution.”

Especially within the customer experience space, privacy and security are top of mind as agencies improve digital platforms. Howard said that security is a foundational element of human-centered design. To maintain its emphasis on privacy, IRS is partnering with security teams to define problem sets and understand nuances to protect taxpayer data.

“We can provide a fantastic journey for our taxpayer, but along the way, if we compromise their information, it’s all for naught,” Howard said. “As far as the Office of Online Services, taxpayer privacy and protection of their data is key to the taxpayer experience.”

Moving forward, both GSA and IRS are building in equity to software development and delivery.

“We have such a diverse American culture … We have huge initiatives around accessibility,” Howard said. “We have resources really dedicated to user stories and community outreach to understand what languages we need to … translate … because there is a difference between interpretation and translation.”

VA is currently working a new mobile app as part of the agency’s digital strategy and recently conducted a soft launch of the app to around 50,000 users. Morton did not share additional details about the app, but did say it will help VA increase its reach to veterans and improve accessibility to the agency’s benefits and services.

“As we continue to build the functionality, there’ll be more visibility on that, but that’s a really incredible improvement, and we’re bringing technology forward with human-centered design at center,” Morton said.

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