Adopting a Customer-Centric Mindset

By William D. Eggers

Today’s digital world demands change. It’s not enough to continue old procedures with email instead of paper. Both public and private sector organizations need to adopt a digital mindset: a way of thinking that sometimes contradicts traditional, meticulous and slow bureaucratic approaches.

Employees with digital mindsets are already scattered in corners of government, particularly among leaders who enter officialdom from the private sector and Silicon Valley. They iterate and constantly refine, using an agile approach, rather than reviewing a checklist, stamping a task and saying “done.” They take ideas from all comers and communicate without strict boundaries. They also prioritize the user experience.

In the modern startup culture, the idea of taking user experience into account is not revolutionary. The goal is to tailor your services to a customer, so that completing an interaction with the company is easy.

Governments, however, rarely need to compete for users. So, too often, systems are designed without prioritizing citizens’ experience.

Read the horror stories of applying for a federal job: Applicants wait months, only to receive a rejection notice, and hiring managers are not allowed to select the applicants they want. Talk to contractors about waiting for environmental reviews, or listen to a single mother who had to skip work to visit an agency that closes at 4:00 p.m.

Governments that ignore users can feel cruel.

Emphasizing Human-Centered Design

But savvy leaders emphasize user-centered, or human-centered, design. The idea is to empathize with customers and citizens by putting yourself in their shoes, and then redesigning your services to improve their experience.

The brilliance of Uber, for example, is in solving a problem that taxi companies willfully ignored: It’s tough to hail a cab. Once implemented, the idea made cabbies look arrogant by comparison, as if they operate on the assumption that customers need them.

People need government, but it’s a dynamic that’s bound to cause resentment if abused.

“When people stop believing in government, they stop believing in some quite fundamental things about how society works, like paying taxes for the good of everyone or obeying the rules of society,” said Mike Bracken, former chief digital officer of the United Kingdom. “These are the natural consequences of government losing the trust of its users.”

But how do you create a customer-centric mindset? Agencies are concerned about numbers and processes, not users.

Kathy Settle, the director for digital policy and departmental engagement at the U.K. Government Digital Service, said that one of the most powerful things her service did was to simply connect the people who were building the service with its users.

“When they see a video of some real person trying to use their service and crying about how bad it is—when you expose them to that, and say, it’s the decisions you’ve made, and the services that you’ve built, that have led this person to get into this state … that really brings it home to people,” she explained.

If you don’t understand how red tape could make you cry, consider applying for food stamps in parts of California. “It takes 50 screens to fill out the application,” said Jennifer Pahlka, former deputy CTO for the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That’s serving government needs, not user needs. It’s discriminatory design.”

Budgets, Quotas and Politics Often Supersede User Experience

Too often in government, the need to appease internal stakeholders supersedes the interests of citizens. “It’s all about getting stakeholder buy-in, and not that of the actual users,” said Greg Godbout, CTO of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Budgets, quotas and political directives too often supersede user experience.

Rather than ignore bureaucratic imperatives, it’s possible to shift their burden away from users. “You need to be very clear, to draw a line in the sand,” said former deputy CTO Pahlka. “Yes, there are 7,000 government needs that we have to meet in order to do what we do, but all of those should be secondary to the user need. That’s the only way this will work. It’s really hard.”

The best designs simplify. Let the complexities happen behind the scenes, to support the simplicity of a customer’s or citizen’s interaction. Uber Technologies—the company—handles logistics; the users only push a button.

As a start, Pahlka’s team of volunteers simplified San Francisco County’s food stamp program, cutting application times from 2 to 3 hours to about 11 minutes.

Likewise, in Belgium, the government delivers tax assessments prefilled with available data from third parties. The government can collate data on salaries from employers, records of tax-deductible donations provided by charities, energy-saving expenses and severance payments. Citizens simply verify the information and mark the data as complete.

Experts say the idea was natural. The developers put themselves in the shoes of the users when they built the technology.

As more government employees change to a mindset that prioritizes users, who knows what other elegant solutions will appear?

William D. Eggers, a leading authority on government reform, is the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Innovation and has advised governments around the world. He is the author of eight books and coined the term “Government 2.0” in a book of the same name.