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How designers can help fix the U.S. government’s customer service

May 26, 2022, 12:00 AM UTC

A tectonic shift in how the federal government operates—and is trying to improve how Americans receive its services—will tap heavily into the world of process and customer experience design. And it’s about time, experts in the field explained at a Fortune conference this week.

In December, President Biden signed an executive order that the government “must be held accountable for designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.” And that means viewing customer experience for things such as getting benefits and interacting with government agencies through a similar lens through which a chief executive might see them.

“Our nation’s CEO gets it,” said Nina Walia, entrepreneur-in-residence and senior adviser to the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, at the Fortune Brainstorm Design conference in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Tuesday. “It means assessing performance publicly and continuously integrating customer feedback,” she added. The results of its customer experience progress are posted regularly to the Performance.gov site.

Fellow panelist Nina Bianchi, solutions principal for the public sector at Medallia and a former government worker herself with time at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, among others, called the effort a “moonshot” that calls on designers to help make a smooth “moon landing.”

It’s all the more crucial for this to succeed, given the myriad crises Americans are facing, from the pandemic to inflation to risks to the electoral system to geopolitical threats abroad, they added. Design here can mean the government streamlining and better integrating all the information citizens get and receive from different agencies so that, for instance, a person doesn’t have to keep providing the same information over and over, and that different bodies are coordinating service to the extent privacy allows, as evidenced by the USA.gov site that serves as a “front door” website.

“Imagine you’re having a life event that requires you to navigate a web of government services. Phone, email, letter: That’s the current reality. Part of this mandate is to actually look at these life events as a customer journey,” Walia said. “Government should just… work.”

Bianchi said one of the problems is that many government functions, such Human Resources and IT, operate in silos, but better integrating them could lead to the “prototype of future work.” Design can help fix that, she said.

Walia urged the conference delegates to consider lending their expertise to the effort. “If you all are interested in solving some really impactful problems, we are hiring designers,” she said.

At the same time, she added, the government’s job search site proves her point about the need for better design. “Right now, if you were to go on USA Jobs and search, you would not find the word ‘design.'”

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