For Equity in Government Services, It’s Time to Change the Paradigm

Almost two years ago, life fundamentally changed overnight. People of all backgrounds and communities found themselves needing government services to make it through challenging times, and the Federal government responded by authorizing initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and economic impact payments.

It was an urgent and visible exercise of how agencies can and must come together and coordinate to provide critical services.

Individuals trying to access pandemic programs and other government services for the first time experienced what government employees and those living in and working with underserved communities have known for years: One customer is simultaneously served by more than a single program, or even a single agency. But for many who are in a state of emergency, or who can’t navigate a complex web of services, unintentional government silos can lead to disparities in the distribution of support.

Equity in service delivery is now in the spotlight for many government leaders, who face an important question: Is it time to change the paradigm for how Federal services are developed, implemented, and delivered?

Driving Equity in Government Services With a Customer-Centric Approach

For many years, there has been a significant and worthy focus on customer experience (CX) in government. From streamlining public-facing websites to developing AI-powered chatbots, CX efforts have steadily improved daily digital interactions with government platforms. But unfortunately, they can’t account for people and communities without regular access to digital platforms, or awareness about how and when to seek help. Put simply, the government services that are supposed to lift people and communities up so they can achieve equality and realize their full potential often don’t reach those who need them the most.

The Biden administration responded to the call for equity by issuing the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, which lays out a whole-of-government equity agenda, and the Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. This clear and renewed commitment is a continued step toward large-scale change, and will empower agencies to look internally, identify programs for improvement, and prioritize equity for mission value. But as we look ahead, a sustained and sweeping paradigm shift requires fundamental changes to service delivery.

Everyone has a role to play to address the needs of diverse populations and underserved communities – including our own organization as partner to government. Here are four areas to decouple this issue from any one agency or organization and help guide our actions forward.

  1. Establish the Connective Tissue for Advancing Equity

Operating for equity ultimately requires shared accountability across Federal agencies rather than individual organizations assessing their own progress. Establishing centralized accountability and shared services, for example through OMB, would help agencies band together, tap into collective resources, and support equity program implementation. This would enable Federal programs to collaborate on solutions for the public, disseminate best practices, and benefit from standardized accountability measures.

We’re seeing government move towards standardization and shared accountability in other areas, such as the creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), which oversees cybersecurity initiatives to defend Federal networks. Similarly, as we mature our understanding of how equity can be embedded across mission areas, an overseeing body for government services ensures that programs and benefits are developed and administered in a standard, data-driven manner regardless of agency. Such a body would foster a truly customer-oriented approach and a provide a richer understanding of diverse populations and underserved communities.

  1. Take a Holistic, Customer-Oriented Approach to Services

Standardizing a whole-of-government approach to services puts the spotlight on the customer – not the agency – and it fosters a better understanding of the needs of diverse populations and underserved communities. While each agency has its own mission and requires unique systems, as a collective they can holistically examine and mitigate complexities and inequities that occur as people navigate government.

For example, consider a family impacted by a natural disaster. They may be seeking immediate services from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, housing relief through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and unemployment insurance through the Department of Labor. Mapping services across organizations can help uncover critical gaps between them that are acutely felt in moments of need, to create solutions that are oriented around customers and communities – not around agencies.

  1. Address the Differences Between Federal Programs and Local Experiences

While new policies and programs can emerge at the Federal level, implementation may play out differently at the local level – where operations can depend on a multitude of factors, including capacity and feasibility.

Local communities may not have the technical resources or infrastructure to access critical services and benefits – or to deploy Federal resources – in the intended way. For that reason, it’s imperative to account for capacity building as part of operationalizing equity initiatives.

For example, consider the process to apply for a Federal grant: It’s a formal system to navigate, with criteria for solicitations developed at the Federal level. Certain communities are not well prepared to compete in this system, may have struggled to access funding in the past, or perhaps experienced disinvestment because of top-down criteria. How can we reduce technical barriers – from the application complexity to reporting requirements – to increase opportunities for more people and communities? And how can we rewrite criteria and outcomes to account for more diverse challenges being addressed through grants?

Grant funding is just an example. As agencies start to assess programs, small changes like these at the Federal level can improve equitable access to resources in the field. And over time, there’s an opportunity to invest in capacity building in a program-agnostic manner so that more programs and services, from health to education, can access fundamental infrastructure and resources.

  1. Think Boldly About What We Can Innovate in the Future

In the current environment, people need to seek out their own Federal resources – and they can’t benefit from programs they don’t know to ask about. Ultimately, government services that could make a real difference are often hidden from the people they are designed to help, from veterans who need healthcare to small business that are affected by COVID-19.

Earlier, we discussed a family in the aftermath of a natural disaster. In the future, what if that family proactively received information from government about all of the support they qualify for in their time of need? What if they didn’t have to independently navigate a multitude of different organizations, find out what services are available, and submit duplicative information? A customer-oriented and proactive model has the power to upend experiences and improve equitable access to critical services.

We can start to imagine benefit delivery and eligibility in a holistic way, where government has a platform to collect and assess data from across Federal organizations. That would allow agencies to work together and flip the experience by actively reaching out to people based on the data they already have instead of needing people to come on their own. With a rich understanding of the full customer journey across the government continuum and where agencies can have the most meaningful mission impact together, we can start to create a framework for this data-driven future.

Change is happening across government, and now is the time to harness this momentum and challenge ourselves to consider a new paradigm. We’re seeing Federal organizations engage with customer segments in new ways to fully understand what needs are not being met or what services are not being delivered fairly. The next opportunity will build the connective tissue between these efforts, focus on incremental success, and create the conditions for agencies to collaborate over the long term.

Continue the equity conversation by learning more about harnessing the right data for evidence based equity, 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.