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4 Tips for Tackling Citizen-Centric Design and Outreach

How to address the shortfalls in human-centered design has elicited innovative solutions to the all-too-common problems of public service.

SALT LAKE CITY — Whether government likes it or not, the way citizens want to access government service has changed forever. The mobile technology evolution and the rise of on-demand companies like Uber and Amazon has put the “buying power” in the hands of the masses.

One of the major criticisms state and local government face is that unlike these private companies, they are not keeping up with the instant consumer demand. And myriad challenges stand between conception and deployment of similar public-sector ideas, many of which are outside of the control of a single, well-meaning agency or branch.

At Utah’s Digital Government Summit held June 7, the topic of how to address the shortfalls in citizen-centric design and outreach was one that elicited innovative solutions to the all-too-common problems of public service.

1. Breaking Down Communications Barriers

For Salt Lake City’s Transportation Division, Program Manager Julianne Sabula said a mixed bag of electronic and quasi-traditional methods has worked wonders in gathering the greater public's input on transportation-related issues.

On top of collaborating with local businesses in one-on-one dialogues and hosting more customary public meetings, the city staff also relies on electronic means to eliminate barriers with the city’s diverse population.

In a less traditional opinion-mining excursion, Sabula said staff set up a booth at a local grocery store to catch city residents where they are, as opposed to trying to get them to attend an after-work meeting at a government building.

An online city survey system, called Peak Democracy, helped equate the opinions of participants into the benefit to the city. Sabula said the tactic garners substantial input from residents, who seem to view the process as a game.

“We get a lot more bang for our buck doing things online,” she said.

2. Identifying the Challenges Facing Government 

But operating in the government space is not without challenges, Sabula noted.

Changes in “the guard” within an organization or the state itself can also prove to be detrimental to successful initiatives.

In one Salt Lake street car project slated for the rapidly growing Sugar House district, an 18-month gap in discussion let the public discourse around the project shift to the negative.

“If we had been talking about the project during that 18-month gap,” Sabula said, "life would have been a whole lot easier."

Often the complexity of the organizational chart can pose problems not only in communications, but also in getting projects off the ground.

3. Aligning Business and IT

From the industry side of the discussion, Kumar Rachuri, director of state and local government solutions with Adobe, said government needs to focus on the digital transformation and better connecting the business and information technology aspects of its duties.

“When you talk about digital transformation, it really implies agile development. You can’t have one without the other and expect positive results,” he said. “That is what leads to increasing the pace at which innovation is rolled out.”

Government, unlike its private-sector counterparts, is often “forced into a corner with huge forklift projects that cost tens of millions of dollars over a number of years," Rachuri said, adding that by his count, if a project runs for five or more years, there is a 70 percent chance of failure.

He points to Delta Airlines as a model for modernization efforts in spite of substantial legacy systems. The airline has built customer-friendly applications in front-facing older systems to ensure service without the massive costs of a complete IT overhaul.

“They too have a ton of legacy systems, and they are not doing forklift. Their legacy systems are still their system of record,” he said. "What they are doing is modernizing on the periphery.”

4. Making Life Easier for the Average Citizen

When it comes to how customers interact with government, Rachuri joked that simply making a form available online is not providing a truly mobile solution to those who might use the tool.

If a mobile PDF form takes longer to fill out than three-and-a-half minutes, he said, irritated customers will begin to call the help desk.

“[Millennials] don’t understand the concept of delayed gratification," he said. "It’s instant gratification: I want what I want, when I want, where I want."

Instead, he recommends phone-friendly drop-down menus that enable users to complete the document without struggling to pinch and zoom a static document.

“One thing I ask you to keep in mind as you are developing the solutions, though they are transactional," Rachuri said, "[is] concentrate on the journey of your citizen greater than a single transaction."