3 things from a brief career in the public service

Service Design/User research board with post-it notes

Written by Leisa Reichelt, Research and Insights lead at Atlassian and former Head of User Research at GDS

Recently a colleague asked me what 3 things I would say if I ever had an audience of Secretaries (very senior public servants) that would help them do things to help make public services better for end users. This is (roughly) what I said:

1. Your organisation will benefit more from you being user centred than the users ever will

It is a common misconception that we do user-centred design because we want to deliver a delightful or engaging experience for our users. Truth is, in government, this is very rarely the case. Paying tax is not delightful, complying with regulation is not delightful, discovering you to repay a benefits debt is far from delightful.Let’s be realistic here – the job of user-centred design is to make things as painless and effortless as possible. It might not be delightful to discover that you’re not eligible for a benefit or a visa, but it is much better to find out as quickly and easily as possible before investing a lot of effort in an application or making plans for the future. When we focus on making things usable rather than delightful or engaging we are focussed on making sure that:

a) people know what you want them to do.
b) they can do that thing as easily as possible and without accidentally making mistakes.

I think it is fair to say that many government services still don’t meet that low bar. This is bad for users but it is also bad for government. Poor usability impacts government’s ability to achieve policy outcomes and it can lead to a decrease in compliance (because even the people who WANT to be compliant often can’t work out how to do so – or have to pay specialists to explain it to them. This failure also leads to more expensive service delivery because people don’t stay in the cheaper digital channels. Instead it takes multiple encounters across multiple channels to complete a task, leading to a higher cost to serve.

Even if you don’t care about the quality of the experience for users (and, honestly, every secretary and most public servants I’ve met have cared a lot), you should care about it for the effectiveness of your department and for the sake of your career. Services that people can use help agencies achieve organisational goals.

2. Orient everything you can in your organisation around real user journeys

Some of our biggest organisational blind spots are caused by focussing on our own organisational structures at the expense of supporting and understanding real user journeys and the part our work plays in supporting those journeys. Like any large organisation, often multiple agencies are involved in the service experience that users have at key points in their life – when they lose their job, have a baby, start an education, start a  business, or when a loved one dies. Even in the services that exist in a single agency, we create false barriers between ‘authenticated’ and ‘unauthenticated’ experiences – often the only person who has a view of the end to end experience is the end user and every single touch point is managed by a different senior manager, sometimes in entirely separate parts of the organisation.

There are small things that you can do immediately and cheaply to try to address this. Stop naming your services after the government need (eg. compliance) and start naming them after the thing that people need to do when they encounter the service (eg. tell government when your rental situation changes). Words and what we call things can be powerful catalysts for cultural transformation.

Make the real user experience visible to people across the organisation by making journey maps from the trigger to the outcome and make sure all the people who own parts of that journey know each other and have seen each other’s work. Put someone in charge of being the expert on that journey and informing all the parts.

Challenge concepts like ‘authenticated’ and ‘unauthenticated’ which are meaningless to end users and often reinforce silos that amplify user experience problems in services.

Make sure that the analytics you are capturing help you understand, across all the channels (digital, phone and shopfront) what is happening, what is working and not. Create success criteria that are really based on improving outcomes for users.

3. Seek the truth, even if it’s ugly

Large organisations like the public service can be pretty hierarchical. Something that can happen in hierarchical organisations is that bad news doesn’t travel up the line – people don’t speak truth to power. It can be a career limiting move (CLM – an acronym I learned for the first time in the Australian Public Service). The reality is that if you’re a senior person in a large organisation, people are probably going out of their way to let you believe that everything is fine. Or as fine as it can be.

As a leader you need to be aware of this and to do everything you can to break through this. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself.

Research has shown that organisations where everyone, including management, sees real users using their services for just 2hrs every 6 weeks are more likely to deliver good services. In truly customer-centric organisations, the executive team routinely get ‘behind the counter’ and see for themselves both what it is like to be a customer and (equally importantly) what it is like to deliver service. Watch an episode or two of Undercover Boss where CEOs go, in disguise, to work in the grass-roots of service delivery in their organisation and discover that the reality is very different to what the reports say.

Many customer-centric organisations require that everyone in the organisation spend time at the coalface of service delivery as a part of induction and leadership should be required to do this regularly. ServiceNSW CEO Rachna Gandhi is known for routinely working behind the counters of the ServiceNSW shopfronts – this not only demonstrates true executive commitment to high quality user experience but also means she has a direct view of the reality of what it is like to experience ServiceNSW services and to learn from the day-to-day experience of the people who work in service delivery.

If this is a priority you need to put time in your diary to make this happen. If you can’t escape endless meetings, then work with the user researchers in your delivery teams and ask them to show you the video footage of people talking about their experiences. What are they learning out in the field? – the good and the bad.

And don’t let your organisation become culturally afraid or disrespectful of your users. Don’t accept that if your users were less stupid or lazy or naughty everything would be better and there is nothing we can do.

Don’t believe for a moment that your users are about to go running to their MP or the media the minute something goes wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. The average person would have to be on the edge of desperation before they contemplate approaching a politician or journalist. Rather, most people want to spend as little time as possible thinking about government services. From my experience they are only too happy to share their experiences and insights if they think their input will be used to make government services better for everyone. If you work in government it’s your job to make sure they get heard.

This article was originally published here and was reposted with permission.


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