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What Agencies Can Learn From These GSA-Led Human-Centered Design Projects

FDIC’s Brian Whittaker unpacks his efforts on key modernization projects that are ultimately improving trust in government.

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Improving public trust in government requires honing in on the digital experience, according to Brian Whittaker, acting chief innovation officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and former innovation lead at the General Services Administration (GSA). And to accomplish this, there are various resources that technology-minded organizations can harness without recreating the wheel.

Whittaker recently unpacked some of his key projects he contributed to in this area during a Harvard Club of Philadelphia virtual forum March 9.

“[GSA’s Technology Transformation Services] has a product and solutions arm that provides a lot of different tools for the rest of the federal government to enhance and improve their digital presence,” Whittaker said during the event.

One of the key groups is GSA’s IT Centers of Excellence, which is focused on accelerating modernization across federal government with an emphasis on customer experience, or what Whittaker described as “the citizen and the public experience.”

Whittaker’s first project at the centers was supporting the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“What I intended to do was to make the job of my employees easier, and that would show up in the form of meeting with other leaders at USDA, discussing some modern management practices and how it’s important to do some user research to actually validate what their needs are and prioritize those,” Whittaker said.

Through these discussions, Whittaker and his team visited six different states and conducted 80 interviews with farmers, ranchers and producers. The team then created a journey map that reflected the customers’ feedback, finding that many needed assistance with the farm loan process.

The journey map defined their experience at each point in the process, not only for the customer, but also for the USDA farm loan officers. Whittaker’s team sought to solve key common challenges by giving loan applicants a simpler view of their specific farm loan journey.

“We wanted to help articulate what to expect what they needed to do and how to avoid common pitfalls,” Whittaker said. “We also wanted our solution to use simple methods that we could deploy quickly and test with real users.”

Whittaker’s team also gathered subject matter expert feedback and conducted competitive analysis to bring industry best practices to government. With that information, the team created a low fidelity paper prototype to test assumptions in the field.

Following research, the team partnered with USDA to develop, test and launch an online farm loan discovery tool to help applicants identify the loan that would work best for their situation, like direct operating and ownership loans. The tool has also given users relevant, printable application guides that provide high-level overviews of the loan application process.

“These guides can stand on their own as printable guides or they can also use them on their mobile phones,” Whittaker said. “This process of listening to farmers, ranchers, producers and responding to their needs — this is one of those scenarios that I believe helps further trust and one of our most critical communities in the United States.”

Under another project at 18F, GSA’s technology and design consultancy for government inside of government, Whittaker worked with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division to transform how reports and claims were received and processed.

“At the time of this project in 2020, the Civil Rights Division estimated that they received over 100,000 reports per year sent by physical letter, email, phone, as well as some web submissions,” Whittaker said. “These reports typically sent from the nation’s most vulnerable populations help civil rights divisions enforce over 30 federal statutes that protect the civil and constitutional rights of everyone living in the United States.”

Whittaker explained that many citizens submitted reports that required extensive follow-up to collect missing information or reports that fell outside of the purview of the division. 18F conducted in-depth usability research and developed a new user-centered online reporting experience that leveraged intuitive design in plain language to guide users through the process of filing a report.

The new form is designed to help the division receive the information needed to process reports efficiently and would route the report or the claim to the appropriate division within DOJ. This approach helped free up more capacity for the division to focus on advancing civil rights.

“The public would find it easier to tell their story, submit their report and receive guidance on what to expect next,” Whittaker said. “This new experience creates a more consistent, collaborative and transparent process, and also allows staff to easily review sort and redirect reports to the appropriate team for analysis.”

18F also partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Coronavirus Task Force to launch a public website for COVID-19 frequently asked questions as part of Whittaker’s third project.

“We put together a multidisciplinary team of product managers, designers and developers to pull together this website, and we worked with multiple federal authorities ranging from HHS, to CDC and FEMA to complete the [first version of the] website in 12 days,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker said recent strategies like the President’s Management Agenda and Biden’s Customer Experience Executive Order are emphasizing more equitable, effective and accountable government activities that deliver results for all. These policies will be key for building trust in government moving forward.

“[These policies] are honing in on very specific key life experiences that our nation’s leadership really wants to focus on improving,” Whittaker said. “So, looking at agencies, how they’re focusing less on outputs and more on outcomes is the direction that this administration is going.”

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