IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Is User-Centered Government Really Attainable?

The push to rethink why and how government does what is does can be a point of great opportunity and frustration, but it all depends on how you approach it.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

How might local governments become truly user-centered? By fundamentally changing the ways in which they operate, and the methods by which they work to understand and meet resident needs. The philosophy and practice of user experience (UX) design— wherein a tool, service, or other solution (digital or non-digital) is designed around the needs of users, and tested with them to make refinements before and even after the solution is brought into the world — has gained traction among municipalities seeking to move away from the pitfalls of bureaucratic design. Likewise, in the search to truly understand what users’ needs are, the framework of human-centered design has emerged as an effective and empathetic way to conduct user research, identify and frame problems, and prototype solutions.

Because both of these practices are flexible and adaptable, governments are applying UX and human-centered design to a host of situations, including digital service efforts, public policy work, and internal performance improvement. In digital service teams in particular, the possibility of specialization (having the product or service adapt to the user) requires, more than ever before, insight into user needs, expectations, and pain points. An evolving set of government-specific resources are aiding these efforts and, along with several notable use cases, are included in the curated list below.


In the late 1980s, manifestos from product designers and usability engineers made the case for a product design process that included the perspective of end-users in all steps of the process. While the private sector has seen considerable success in meeting consumer needs this way, only in the past decade has this thinking “come of age” and transferred into the social and public sectors.

Two now-foundational pieces speak to this shift. In “Design Thinking for Social Innovation,” Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt discuss how “social challenges require systemic solutions that are founded in the client’s or customer’s needs.” Similarly, Jon Kolko’s piece — “Design Thinking Comes of Age” — discusses how an emphasis on designing great experiences means that your team spends as much time talking about the “emotional resonance of a value proposition as much as they discuss utility and product requirements.” His book Wicked Problems, available for free online, provides an outline of methods for conducting research and gaining empathy, synthesizing data, developing ideas and creative new designs, and launching them. While each resource on human-centered design has its own particular takes and offers methods that are especially useful in a certain context, they all more or less share these phases.

While design thinking for social innovation has gotten its sea legs, similar efforts in government are notably more nascent, perhaps given that cultural and work shifts in the public sector are oftentimes slower moving since they must contend with an entrenched bureaucratic structure. Cities must balance the goal of efficiency with the purpose of fairness — after all, an efficient postal service would shirk its duty to maintain a brick and mortar office in every ZIP code, even though a foundational purpose of the post office is to give relatively equitable access to mail services as a way to foster democracy. Human-centered design is, in its highest form, a way to address both efficiency and fairness.

In their book A New City O/S, Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman put forth the model of “distributed governance,” in which public officials “surface ideas from unconventional sources and arm employees with the information they need to become pre-emptive problem solvers.” More than any other text currently available, the book is rich with use cases and micro-examples of cities putting design and user experience approaches into practice. One example the book highlights is an effort at Atlanta’s city planning department to redesign its public notice signs.


A relatively recent but high-profile resource is the Civic Service Design toolkit released by the Service Design Studio within the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, in partnership with Citi Community Development and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. Building on their locally focused goal of “enabling the City of New York to better meet the needs of its most vulnerable residents through service design methods,” the 56-page guide walks readers through the practice of civic service design, a discipline “to develop solutions that are rooted in insights about the holistic experiences of those affected by public services.” In addition to explanations of 20-plus methods focused on talking with people, connecting the dots, trying things out, and evaluating impact, the guide provides insight into how the city is to reimagine its procurement process to better hire and work with outside design firms.

A few toolkits and guides released by federal actors showcase how various parts of the federal government are using human-centered design to great effect, and offer similar how-to information. 18F, an office within the General Services Administration that partners with federal agencies to improve the user experience of government, offers a modular set of “method cards” on its website, mostly written with an eye toward digital service projects. Additionally, their research report and companion methodology report talk through the challenges and opportunities that digital service teams in government will face.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Innovation has produced several reports on its human-centered design efforts, each of which are easily translatable into other governmental contexts. A report on their pilot efforts, their Designing for Veterans human-centered design toolkit, and veterans experience journey map are all useful references.


Angelica Quicksey’s piece on how human-centered design contributes to better policy, from the Kennedy School Review, offers a broad but helpful overview of how governmental actors can use design as a “framework for improving service delivery at various levels of government.” The piece profiles the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics within the city of Boston and details their service design approaches to highlight “lessons for policy makers at all levels in the mindsets and methods of design.” She includes a striking quote from a team member, who says that they’re “tired of people creating a dichotomy between design and policy,” noting that “anytime you build a human system, you’re designing.” A listing of the team’s projects on their website offers a window into their wide-ranging work.

For cities looking to infuse user-centric approaches into their policy or overall innovation agenda, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ City Hall Innovation Playbook lays out the imperative for innovation, provides insight on structuring personal and delivery decisions, and offers a four-step process that somewhat mirrors the human-centered design approach. While the playbook has city leaders initially setting policy priorities areas, they recommend starting by “learning deeply about the causes of [identified] challenges and determining how to measure progress” in a way that builds relationships and doesn’t pre-determine solutions. The playbook offers practical methods and use cases for generating and winnowing down new ideas, and places an emphasis on employee-driven innovation. Additionally, the walkthrough sets ambitious, but “SMART” goals and metrics, and explains how to determine the key components of an initiative by building in feedback systems. Throughout, deep consideration is given to the individuals driving and operationalizing the initiatives.


Here on Data-Smart, Robert Burack’s piece on Putting Users First provides a conceptual overview of the practice of and possibilities unlocked through human-centered design in government. The companion one-hour webinar walks viewers through the phases of understanding context, defining problems, prototyping solutions, and launching and iterating on those solutions — while offering a set of use cases drawn from city and county governments.

For cities looking beyond articles and toolkits for ways to better put these methods into practice, the LUMA Institute offers both an online resource and learning portal (subscription required) and in-person trainings for government employees.

This resource guide was authored by Robert Burack, a Data Fellow for the Civic Analytics Network in Pittsburgh.