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Can Human-Centered Design Help Rebuild Trust in Government?

States are investing in ways to incorporate the end user's experience into digital services, looking at how people truly use platforms and how to improve them. Some say it’s what government should have been doing all along.

multicolored silhouettes of different kinds of people
Adobe Stock
The term “human-centered design,” or HCD, came into vogue more than a decade ago as a way to describe a new approach to the delivery of government services and to elevate government activities overall.

The Interaction Design Foundation defines HCD as a practice that looks to understand people and their processes, to solve root problems, and to iterate for continuous improvement. Some say it’s what state and local government should have been doing all along.

Too often, though, past practice has been to state a need — “constituents need to access XYZ service” — then lay out some technical spends and send IT to build that process or function or application. What’s missing? The end users’ actual experience.

Human-centered design promises to change that dynamic, and experts with an interest in public-sector service say there’s an urgency around adopting this approach.

“We’re at a low level of public trust in government at all levels, including state and local,” said Tara McGuinness, founder of New America’s New Practice Lab, a research and design center focused on economic security for all Americans.

“The stakes are very high, and using practices of human-centered design is one way to help governments walk in the shoes of those people they serve,” she said. “It can be an effective way of helping governments get closer to the people they’re serving, in order to improve their services.”


Over the past few decades, emerging success stories and developing best practices have helped bring human-centered design to the fore in state and local government. With the pandemic, SLED entities leaned even harder into this approach.

statistic showing 12: the average number of digital barriers a person with blindness or low vision experiences in a week
“When COVID hit, it really accelerated the adoption of human-centered design across agencies,” said Michael Brennan, CEO and co-founder of Civilla, a nonprofit that works with local governments to make services more accessible and equitable.

In the midst of the pandemic, “there were unprecedented demands for services around things like health-care access and unemployment insurance,” he said. “Getting the customer experience right really mattered, and this experience made it clear that some things weren’t working.”

The pandemic served as a wake-up call across all levels of government, a signal that agencies needed to improve both their internal processes and their constituent interactions. While many have embraced HCD to help raise the bar, the SLED landscape still is a mixed bag.

“There are a wide range of states of maturation at the state, city and county levels,” McGuinness said.

“There are some places that have full-blown digital teams where human-centered design is part of the mandate,” while some are still ramping up their use of HCD, she explained. For those on the journey, New America’s New Practice Lab is one of several organizations helping to drive adoption of HCD, along with Civilla, Code for America and others.

“There are a number of folks who are helping fill the human-centered capacity gap, as state and local governments build out new capacities of their own,” McGuinness said.

Overall societal winds seem to be blowing in this direction. In a recent survey, more than half of global organizations said they plan to invest in human-centric applications within the next 12 to 18 months. “Seventy-six percent of respondents believe that building human-centric applications is more important than it was two years ago due to business considerations and cultural shifts,” according to the Mass Technology Leadership Council, a New England-based technology industry organization.

Constituents expect government to deliver services with the same ease and simplicity they encounter in private-sector digital experiences. Budget constraints mean SLED agencies are under pressure to be more efficient in their service delivery. And the historically low level of trust in government is pushing agencies to prove themselves.


New Hampshire started leaning heavily into HCD about five years ago, when Gov. Chris Sununu declared there ought to be a consistent look and feel across all executive branch websites, which often serve as the front door in constituent interactions.

“We started a project to create a template that would give common branding to all of the agency websites,” said Kathryn Michener, director of user experience in the New Hampshire Department of Information Technology. “New Hampshire has just over 100 websites in the executive branch and we have completed 70 website migrations. The new template has been a huge success for us.”

statistic showing 68 minutes: the amount of time people with blindness or low vision lose each time they encounter an accessibility barrier on a government website
Based on a previous experience at the state’s Department of Environmental Services, Michener tasked her team with making website navigation topic-based, rather than hierarchical.

To ensure the revamped sites would meet the need, the team sought input from end users about their use of various state sites. There were focus groups with constituents, “and we also talked to the staff about their pain points: calls or emails that they’re getting, things that people can’t find on the website, questions they’re answering on a daily basis,” she said.

That internal feedback was a key piece of the HCD process. “We have so many wonderful subject matter experts in the agencies, and they all know their content really well,” she said. With their input, “you can formulate that list of where we want people to get to, and the kind of information they want.”

The improved experience on the refreshed websites has helped rebuild trust, she said, and there have been added benefits for the agencies themselves.

“When you can get your constituents to the right information quickly, you end up with a lot more time to focus on the programs that you need to focus on,” Michener said. “You can really get a lot more time back.”


While technologists and agency leaders in New Jersey are utilizing HCD in a range of areas, Chief Innovation Officer Dave Cole points to a particular win: an effort to simplify access to postpartum paid leave.

The state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development supports new parents with temporary disability insurance and family leave insurance. But people had trouble navigating the system.

smartphone screen showing New Jersey's Maternity Coverage Timeline TOol
“You had information spread across a couple pages and largely text-based — static web content,” he said. People couldn’t find what they needed and many failed to utilize the benefit. Supported by HCD, the state now has “a simple, one-page, mobile-responsive form that people can just load up and interact with using plain language,” he said.

The team also developed an easy-to-use Maternity Coverage Timeline Tool to help people understand their benefits. As of April 2024, more than 95,000 New Jerseyans have used the timeline tool, and over 378,000 timelines have been created since the tool launched in May 2022.

To inform the new offerings, the design team went to the front lines. “We met the Department of Labor staff and did a couple sessions in their office where we listened to phone calls that the agents were having … to figure out what issues residents were calling in,” Cole said. “We looked at some of the back-office systems, we interviewed the staff to learn the challenges that they have.”

One common challenge for government is in finding the actual end users to survey, especially for a highly specific benefit like maternity leave. To solve this, the New Jersey team worked with community-based organizations to identify potential beneficiaries and got feedback from those individuals as the design process unfolded. Participants were compensated with gift cards for their time.

As often is the case with HCD, the effort required a culture shift on the part of the IT team. Rather than building once based on a set of predefined specs, the team has been asked to iterate, producing multiple versions of the new application based on ongoing user feedback.

Strong leadership pays off here. “It really takes an adjustment to create space in the process for doing this kind of work,” Cole said.


New York state Chief Customer Experience Officer Tonya Webster knew improvements were needed in the state’s online Medicaid forms. “They were long, they were complicated. They weren’t in plain language. People were getting stuck,” she said.

It seemed natural to turn to HCD in order to improve that. “Human-centered design is really at the core of strong customer experience,” she said.

statistic showing 74%: the amount of total task time people with blindness or low vision spent dealing with accessibility issues using digital kiosks, like check-in screens
With that in mind, the design team looked for user input via surveys and focus groups. And they leaned heavily on employee experiences. “They work with the customer day in and day out,” Webster said. “By infusing that voice of the employee in the design process, we got a well-rounded, 360-degree feedback loop to help inform service-delivery design.”

The net result: a streamlined application process that could be completed in about half the time. “We made the application process more intuitive, and we saw really tremendous results. Our engagement went up, we started receiving great feedback,” she said.


In Montana, Child Support Services always relied on paper case files. “This outdated method of record retention made access to information difficult and posed a logistical nightmare,” said Adam Carpenter, chief data officer for the state’s Department of Administration. Users waited too long for information, and managing those physical records was costing the state $400,000 annually in administrative and staff time.

Through “an open-ended discovery and ideation process,” the design team identified paper records as the key problem, he said. And discovery didn’t stop there.

“We engaged in weekly procurement, design and development of the new processes, [allowing designers] to discover new capabilities they hadn’t thought to ask for and remove obsolete functions.”

That process doesn’t always come easy, especially for government agencies that are new to HCD. At the outset of any effort, “communication is vital,” Carpenter said. “Beginning with open-ended conversations can be slow, but establishing trust is essential. Showing up with a guided discovery process to keep the conversation moving will go a long way.”

The result in Montana was an AI-driven document processing, storage and retrieval system built on the Google Cloud Platform. “The system provided a workflow for everyone, from staff to relevant parties, by allowing access to data relevant to user needs,” he said. “We created a call center to answer questions quickly and a portal where parties could self-serve. The result was a more efficient use of administrative and staff time and enormous cost savings for the taxpayer.”


How can state and local governments move forward with HCD?

 At Civilla, Brennan recommends bracing for disruption. In the past, government typically hasn’t asked what users and employees need or want, and there’s bound to be some culture shock. “We see problems when you try to boil the whole ocean,” he said.

Better to have a really tight focus at first, as in: “We are going to go deep, we’re going to empower a team, we’re going to get that implemented and create the proof point,” he said. Then build from there.

At the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (a.k.a. the Stanford Senior Designer Nadia Roumani said it’s important to identify the right project for an initial HCD effort. It takes time to bring people up to speed on the skills and methods of HCD, “and it’s hardest to do that when you’re looking at a high-stakes challenge that has a really tight timeline,” she said.

“Start with something that might not be the highest stakes, something that will allow more time,” she said. “You need a little bit of spaciousness to actually engage in a thoughtful process, in order to introduce this innovative way of thinking, this very collaborative way of working.”

For some, the road to HCD will involve creating new titles, an innovation chief or something similar. But McGuiness said that’s not a prerequisite. While it helps to have someone champion the effort who understands and embraces this approach, “I don’t think we should be overly prescriptive about the seats and the roles,” she said.

As leaders look to make government processes more responsive, “you can do that with a title or team or position, or with big qualitative research projects. But you can also do that in small ways, just by getting curious about the experience of people who come into your offices or seek your services,” she said. “The goal here is just to find a way to make government leaders walk in the shoes of their clients and their front-line staff.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.