With customer experience (CX) being not only a priority in President Biden’s Presidential Management Agenda vision but also the subject of its own executive order, Federal agency and industry officials said a focus on human-centered design and personnel is vital when using technology to make citizen services more consistent and accessible.

Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – along with those from ServiceNow and NetImpact – shared their insights on improving and accelerating service delivery at the ServiceNow Federal Forum 2022 on March 10.

“One of the things that we wanted to do early on was bring on in-house designers and human-centered design specialists when we first set up this office back in 2015, 2016,” Barbara Morton, deputy chief veterans experience officer for VA’s Veterans Experience Office (VEO), said at the event. “And there were no [available employees] that were classified for that talent,” she added.

“Fast forward to where we are today, and … we actually have our first-ever Chief Design Officer in our shop, and a whole team of Federal employees who are CX strategists and design specialists,” Morton said.

She said those hires have been key to unlocking insights and better understanding the customers that the VA serves. Utilizing insights gleaned from how veterans are using the services, Morton and the VEO can figure out not only how veterans are currently interacting with services, but also identify the pitfalls and shortcomings of the current systems in place.

Morton said a focus on human-centered design has been used to update CX for veteran patients and to smooth along the process on an end-to-end basis of receiving healthcare from VA. Additionally, the agency is using data and insights to improve ease of navigation at medical centers – a “low-tech” fix as she called it – and streamline VA’s website properties.

To figure out the best way to streamline VA’s web properties, the agency sent out a survey to veterans and came back with findings that VA.gov was the most accessible front door for veterans. But Morton didn’t stop there – she also initiated a re-design of the website, working with the VA chief technology officer, and said that a new mobile app has been in already in soft launch this year.

“So, we are really seeping this [human-centered design] methodology deep, deep into the organization and the results have sort of spoken for themselves,” Morton said. “After we relaunched VA.gov … veteran satisfaction of use of the website increase by over 20 percent.”

At USCIS, Chief Technology Officer Robert Brown said that questioning how to get to improved CX and using a human-centered design framework was the first question for his office when looking to improve service. And he said finding the right personnel is a big facilitator of that mission.

“How to get to human-centered design is] first and foremost,” Brown said. “Some of the things that we’ve done that bolster this … is to actually start to hire the right people and make sure that we have good, classified position descriptions so that we can hire bodies with that talent in the government.”

After that, USCIS took two years to research and implement a new design system utilizing available data. Brown said his office has been working on establishing a community of excellence as well as a CX research base he hopes will be able to be used by the whole of USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) parent agency.

“[We’re] starting to also develop a good research base that the entire organization, as well as others within DHS or even within the Federal community, can reuse based upon similar sort of experiences that we presented and have with our customer base,” Brown said.

Venkatapathi Puvvada, chief executive officer of NetImpact, said that a current shortfall of citizen services delivery is a failure to make broad use of employee capabilities within an agency. He said the platform Brown is talking about has a chance to make a dent in that capability gap.

“Part of what we’re not leveraging is the power of the broader audience that has the mission experience within the agency and making the technology work for them,” Puvvada said. “Obviously, we need to have skill sets, technical skill sets, like cloud [and] cyber, so on and so forth. What [Brown] is describing is he set up an integrated platform on which people can innovate on top of to accelerate the delivery.”

“It is taking that business analyst and mission analyst that understand the context of what we need to do to enable service delivery, acceleration, and teaching them,” Puvvada added. “It’s a no-code environment on top of this integrated platform, and I think that’s a big skill set.”

Jonathan Alboum, Federal Chief Technology Officer for ServiceNow and moderator of the panel discussion, emphasized the empathy and care seen from both Morton and Brown and added the importance of seeing someone interact with a service or product to improve their experience with it.

“Connecting people who understand the mission to people who understand technology, and ideally helping people who understand the mission to know technologies, and people who know technology to know the mission,” are keys to the process, Alboum said. “Now you have this amazing intersection of people who can do really tremendous things,” he said.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.