With the U.S. Presidential Election around the corner, never before has digital exerted such a strong influence on each and every vote. Politicians are communicating with voters around the clock via social media, creating an immediacy and intimacy that has changed the nature of interactions between politicians and the people. With digital natives joining junior ministerial ranks, and more senior politicians joining the digital conversation, government bodies are under increasing pressure from all sides to digitally transform the notion of public services.

Archaic, inward-looking government departments and legacy systems are being phased out to allow room for flexible, citizen-centric digital solutions, as a way of increasing citizen engagement, while simultaneously boosting speed and efficiency and lowering costs. This is the era where technology is in service of the public good, enabling a new form of citizen empowerment.

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'Design-Thinking’ the Citizen Experience

Government organizations are starting to realize the benefits of digital transformation to reinvent the citizen experience in the form of digital services tailored to individual needs. However, public service leaders are finding that as they move further into the digital age, they need to re-orient their internal organizations around this paradigm shift, or their investments in digital are likely to fail. This is where Design Thinking comes into play.

Design Thinking has become a proven approach to reimagining complex service or organizational issues in the private sector. This approach of user research, rapid prototyping, constant feedback and experimentation is starting to take hold in leading business, like Citrix Systems, Ebay and Google, and is slowly spilling over into government bodies.
 
Challenges to Adopting a Design-Led Approach

Success in implementing Design Thinking depends on disrupting embedded organizational beliefs and practices, including cultural shifts, changing attitudes toward risk and failure, and encouraging openness and collaboration. Specifically, government bodies need to consider:
  • Top to bottom support – any change as wide-ranging as the shift to Design Thinking requires support from the top. Those at the top of design-led organizations need to be experimenters, improvisers and networkers who lead by example and set the tone for change on the ground.
  • Design skills gap – talent to execute innovation is in short supply and few governments are in a financial position to outbid private sector firms on pay. But the public sector does have something to offer that private companies most often do not: the ability to do meaningful work for the public good. Public sector bodies also need to upskill their current employees – at times partnering with outside design experts.
  • No risk, no reward – for government agencies, it can be challenging to embrace a culture of trial and error. But Design Thinking is useless without Design Doing. Agencies need to recognize the benefits of agile prototyping, iterating and optimizing processes, and that failings early on can save millions while costing little.


What Can Government Bodies Do to Change?

Digital has paved the way for governments and the private sector to occasionally partner to solve thorny challenges. For instance, the White House brought together the U.N. Refugee Agency and crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise money for the Syrian relief effort. The weeklong partnership raised nearly $1.8 million for more than 7,000 people in need.

But to effectively communicate with today’s digitally-enabled citizens, there are several key principals government bodies must follow:

  • Plain and simple – use simple language focused on content, structure, navigation, grouping and completion. Strip away the bureaucratic, government-speak and be transparent.
  • Take an outside-in design approach – by considering the entire ecosystem, and using research to uncover insights, service design reveals an outside-in view of the people in the entire ecosystem.
  • Be sensitive – too many government services, tools and processes are opaque and cumbersome when dealing with sensitive issues, such as immigration, making a tax submission, or adopting a child. Fjord recently took a human-centered design framework to the State of Michigan by designing a system that allowed caseworkers to convey the fairness of a child support order, while delivering excellent customer service and increasing transparency and accuracy to families in the midst of an emotionally-charged separation.
  • Work to digitize processes and services across departments – Governments should look to organize their digital services around the needs of the people – whether they are starting a business, retiring or having a child – rather than around their own departmental structures.
  • Address privacy concerns – The assurance of privacy and security is a critical step to encourage adoption of digital channels.


Dawn of a New Governing Age

A desire to change is rising among many government organizations, as they realize the old ways of citizen outreach are unsustainable. People want convenience, speed, simplicity and a tailored experience that’s relevant to them and their situation. Design Thinking must be at the heart of this shift and will be critical to long-term success in delivering the public service for the future.


van der Merwe is Group Director at Fjord Design and innovation from Accenture Interactive