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July 13, 2017

Human-centered Design in Government

What is human-centered design?

When you think of human-centered design, what comes to mind? To people outside of the design field, it can feel like quite a nebulous term.

Human-centered design is about taking, as the primary consideration, the perspective of a person (a user) and their needs, then building networks of different systems that work synchronously with one another. All of this is done in order to reduce a person’s effort needed to interact with these systems, which include everything from digital interfaces or informational documents, to wayfinding or customer service touch points.

Simply put, it’s about creating design that functions for the end user and eliminating confusion along the way.

If we were to contextualize it a bit: think about the last trip that you took and all of the tools and processes that made its planning easy or difficult. How did you find researching what to do in your destination and booking tours, accommodation, etc? Was it easy for you to check in, choose seats and keep up-to-date about your flight status? How easy was it for you to get to the airport? When you got to the airport, was it difficult for you to get to your gate? And, if your gate was changed,did you find this out easily, or did you miss your flight because of it?

Even in this simple example of trip planning, there are clearly a lot of complexities and unknowns involved. The systems involved here are asynchronous - because they are owned and operated by different groups and therefore do not always speak to one another.

Human-centered design in government

We know that usability is a hot topic in design, but usability in government? Well, that’s downright spicy. There are three key elements of governmental organizations that, when combined, create an incredibly exciting opportunity for applying ‘citizen-centred’ design. First, governments, by their very nature (and historical beginnings), exist to serve and support their citizens. Second, government staff roles generally attract motivated, committed, and socially-minded individuals who are driven to make a difference in people's lives. Third, government organizations are normally a single organizational structure with responsibility for administering numerous interconnected departments and services. Combine the mission, the people, and the structure and you have the perfect foundation for building synchronous ecosystems.

The internet is ripe with literature on how human, or in this case, citizen-centered thinking can improve how government engages with the public and vice versa. There are also plenty of resources for government to learn about different usability methods like content auditing, usability testing, card sorting, etc. What is missing, however, is the dialogue about the inherent complexities specific to government systems and how to address these. It is near impossible to apply any sort of design principles without first understanding and addressing the complexities of government.

Complexities of government ecosystems

In government, there are many layers of intersectional complexity that could preclude the implementation of a successful citizen-centered approach. I’ve outlined some of the common ones below, but this is by no means a comprehensive list of challenges as government bodies will vary depending on the level of government in question, political systems, societal culture, demographics, etc.

Inheritance of legacy systems

Governments face a typical enterprise challenge of having to deal with legacy systems and organizational culture (including perspectives, norms, processes), which increases in complexity with its size and history.

Each legacy system comes with its own challenges, and government bodies need to figure out creative ways to work with and within these systems or alternatively move to adopt new ones. Arguably, changing existing business culture is the most difficult to overcome as there may be a lack of understanding of what citizen-centered design is, the importance of it, and ultimately, resistance to change. This brings us to our next challenge.

Change management

Change management is a monumental task in government, since the longer a system has been in use and the more complex it becomes, the more difficult it is to implement change. From a technical and process standpoint, change management requires planning, education, adoption, training, etc. While from a cultural standpoint, it requires a fundamental shift in perspective. It is this cultural shift that is the foundation for successful change management, but is the most difficult piece due to human nature’s resistance to change, organizational resourcing, lack of expertise, and especially by politics.

Political structures

Within any enterprise-level organization, “politics” is used as the vernacular to describe the complex internal governance structures and, to a point, business culture. We hear that term used frequently in our workplaces. But within government, this is compounded by the addition of the actual politics involved in the governance and management of geographic areas. Political structures influence decision-making processes and can sometimes create a command-chain such that even if individuals or teams within a government body are innovative and forward thinking, they may be blocked from moving forward because of the political sensitivities of the party or parties in power.

In enterprise companies, the success of change is dependent on the support of those who are within the command chain, but in government, particularly for monumental changes, it relies on the support of the party in power. As the magnitude of change decreases, it becomes necessary to have support of relative bodies in the command chain, such as a department head, a team lead, or a project manager. They will be your cheerleaders and without them in your corner, it is nearly impossible to either innovate or to move forward in any meaningful way.


Finally, this brings us to the issue of resourcing, both fiscal and human. As we know, effective change doesn’t happen without knowledgeable staff and an appropriate budget. This is true regardless of what stage a government body is at in terms of adopting citizen-centered design principles - from early culture change to the implementation of tangible products and services.

The process of budget allocation within and between departments creates complexity, competition, and scarcity. Add to this the need for governments to be transparent with their funding, including potential political repercussions from this transparency, and we create a fiscally conservative mentality that can be challenging when trying to introduce change.

Financing also impacts human resourcing in that without appropriate funding, certain staff positions cannot be created and thus there may be a lack of knowledgeable and skilled staff to implement new innovations.

In addition, the nature of government political cycles and therefore funding (from year-to-year or cycle-to-cycle) means that considerable expenditure for replacing entire systems is difficult to find or approve, and therefore more regular but smaller patch fixes and piecemeal updates are likely to be made. This often results in a ‘temporary fix’ system potentially becoming entrenched for decades.

So what can be done?

When reviewing the above challenges, it can seem like a difficult task to introduce citizen-centered design thinking to governmental organizations. It does require time, patience, and a thoughtful approach, but it can happen - we have already seen several prominent government bodies become leaders in government usability.

Some key trends are converging in our favour: the cost of adopting new, cutting edge technologies is always falling; the cost of acquiring increasingly powerful mobile devices is within the reach of the majority of the population, therefore usage is widespread; and there is an increasing number of tech companies (like ours) that have been founded with a dual mission of “purpose and profit”, who wish to collaborate with government and other social impact organizations to improve lives.

Therefore, now is the perfect time to take a step back, reflect on how citizens interact with you and your services, and consider new and improved ways to create meaningful relationships between government and citizens.

In my next blog post, I’ll outline some initial steps that can be taken to move towards a citizen-centered approach to design in improving and creating systems that can help you and your team in considering the needs of your constituents.

Technology. People. Purpose.

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