Equity as a Platform: Applying a New Mindset to Scale Innovation

Equitable service delivery is at the center of today’s government mission, with executive orders spurring a holistic evaluation of agency practices, programs, and policies. Leaders across Federal agencies are committed to providing value to all people when they need it most, but they also recognize that the journey requires new approaches and mechanisms to make a sustained difference.

As we look ahead, progress in equity cannot be measured by traditional indicators of program success, such as whether an earmarked budget was spent or whether a set of tasks was completed on time. Traditional programmatic wins tend to create value for segments of the population but may inadvertently exacerbate challenges for other, more underserved communities. For example, website and mobile upgrades can improve certain customer experience (CX) metrics while also simultaneously leaving behind people with limited broadband or access to a device.

The hard question agencies are then asking is: How can we build and enhance solutions to provide the most value to the most people, including those who have been historically underserved?

Achieving the broad equity aims of the Biden administration requires an empowered Federal workforce that can disrupt patterns of behavior and improve service delivery on a continuous loop. And it requires goalposts that are inherently ambitious and a culture that harnesses both the “hits” and “misses.” In many ways, that starts with embracing a product mindset.

Achieving Outcomes through Product Centricity

Private sector companies often focus their services on a particular customer segment, but agencies can’t take a narrow view – and it’s highly complex to build solutions that are tailored for all people. However, changes in service development are necessary; the global pandemic has highlighted that government cannot conduct business as usual.

Encouragingly, we’re starting to see Federal organizations embrace what’s called a product mindset. Let’s explain this concept.

Within both the public and private sectors it’s common to manage progress around projects – initiatives that have start and end dates, center around producing something (such as a tool or service), and measure success by whether milestones and budget were hit. Often, this approach is satisfactory and aligns to the way contracts or programs are funded.

A product mindset, however, flips the script. Instead of development teams tasked to build solutions and then move on to the next project, multi-disciplinary and longstanding product teams are established to:

  • Build a deep understanding of their customers’ needs and emotions, and gain an on-the-ground view of the real barriers to access
  • Rapidly build solutions that can be tested and reviewed with customers to determine their ability to make lasting impact – while balancing the need to address urgent relief and support
  • Create a virtuous cycle of customer engagement, prototypes, and product innovation

Over time and with experience, product teams become in-depth experts about the customers that they are supporting as well as the mission and service they are delivering. They are then more capable of producing targeted value and more inclusive and equitable services. This heightened sense of agility and ability to continuously improve, rather than just roll out, new ways to serve people and communities, helps us get closer to a future vision: where at every juncture from birth, a person has ready access to the services they qualify for.

Going Directly to the Source

In a previous piece, our colleagues talked about the limitations of customer experience data and how traditional feedback mechanisms only account for a small slice of the public. Surveys and focus groups tend to miss populations that don’t have access to those services at all, due to challenges such as digital literacy, language barriers, or simply a lack of time to navigate a complex system.

Focusing on the dynamic needs, challenges, and perspectives of users requires a newly empowered and skilled workforce. Enterprises like Target and Amazon have sets of tools, organizational structures, and teams to assess performance and enhance products, as well as multiple channels for customers to provide feedback. While the Federal government must account for inherently more significant and complex mission objectives, there are things we can learn from the private sector and the way customers participate in the process.

When building a product to improve equity and access, it’s fundamental to quickly engage with – not just read or interpret metadata about – real people accessing services and assess how they’re receiving and experiencing them in real time. Going directly to the source and into the field to understand unique perspectives and important distinctions within communities helps create a richer set of insights to shape continuous improvements and inform decisions around technical assistance.

It may sound simple at first, but engaging with customers often requires zooming out to see a larger web of stakeholders. We witnessed this in action when we helped a major Federal agency – the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – understand the diverse inequities and perspectives of their beneficiaries and reduce longstanding burdens and barriers to access. By engaging with broad stakeholders and populations – from patients, families, and caregivers to providers, facilities, and data support vendors – it was possible to build a rich and layered set of needs to address. Through the power of engaging across the customer ecosystem, the organization continues to eliminate burdens for all, promote interoperability, and pinpoint opportunities that help providers spend more time with their patients.

Envisioning a Future Marketplace for Equity

While rapid discovery often starts within individual organizations and programs, sustained progress for equitable service delivery needs to be addressed at the interagency level.

Through the leadership of the Office of Management and Budget, the government is already taking crucial steps toward improving equity across agencies and interconnected experiences. We’re also seeing models emerge such as the General Services Administration’s CX Center of Excellence and the Veterans Experience Office, which are creating new value by orienting innovation around customer needs, centralizing best practices, and encouraging collaboration among agencies and the private sector.

To advance equity at scale into the future, mature product organizations can help enable widespread progress beyond a single program to maximize outcomes for more people and more communities.

Imagine the possibilities if there was a marketplace of tested customer products that agencies could access, integrate, and build on to meet specific requirements. This vision isn’t far off, and the concept of “government as a platform” is already changing product development and delivery in key mission areas. With examples like Healthcare.gov and the Biden administration’s transition to USA.gov, we’re in a prime position to start thinking about equity through a similar lens and to create a reusable repository for platform-driven services and products.

We know that no technology or packaged solution can address complex service gaps for segments of the population. But as we envision ways to overcome these gaps, embracing human-centered product development allows the government to continuously improve so we can better support individuals, families, and communities in the moments that matter. New innovations and partnerships will require goalposts that are inherently ambitious. But in this context, it’s better to miss an aspirational target, know why it was missed, and continuously improve than it is to change or lower the goalposts along the journey.

Continue the equity conversation by learning more about the vital intersection between equity and digital transformation, another topic in the Booz Allen series on advancing equity across Federal government programs.

In this series, “Equity as a National Priority: An Interagency Perspective,” Booz Allen discusses the topic of advancing equity across Federal government programs – offering perspectives for a framework that prioritizes fair and inclusive service delivery to the public.

About David Sulek and Sahil Sanghvi
Dave Sulek is a senior vice president at Booz Allen, focusing on the intersection of policy and technology; Sahil Sanghvi is principal of digital strategy with a focus on sustainable innovation and the impact of technology on society.