Embedding Equity in Civic Design to Transform Customer Experience

This article isn’t about a single product or digital solution to improve customer experience (CX), but instead how we as designers in the federal government are leveraging design methods to help build a foundation for improved customer experiences for all people. Equity and customer experience are inextricably linked; and in government, there is no single “target customer.”

The U.S. government is arguably one of the largest, most complex service delivery organizations in the world, responsible for a wide range of services. Each day, 2 million people pass through airport security checkpoints. One in four Americans is covered by Medicaid. Nearly one in eight Americans is managing student loans. More than 25 million people a year experience a natural disaster. Nine out of ten people age 65 and older count on Social Security benefits. More than 65 million Americans are covered by Medicare. And irrespective of whether a person is young or old, rural or urban, tech novice or digitally savvy, has a disability, where they went to school, or their level of English proficiency, we must design for them. Every interaction between the government and the American public is an opportunity to deliver the services our people expect and deserve. And when we don’t, that’s a cost to our nation—Veterans don’t get benefits they have earned, small business owners can’t grow their businesses, new mothers and infants lack medical care they need, and disaster survivors face mountains of paperwork to rebuild their home.

If the best design happens within constraints, we can demonstrate how equitable design is good design, and leads to better customer experiences. Just as the Unigrid System and style guides across large complex organizations developed by federal agencies improved visual design in the seventies, we can develop practices, principles, and approaches that can improve the equitable design of products, services, and experiences beyond the scope of the public sector. We can create better solutions that lead to better experiences, more equitable outcomes, and rebuild trust in government.

At the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency that provides the federal government with critical services ranging from buildings to buying electric vehicles and providing technology services, we are building equity into our practice of customer experience design to drive improved outcomes for all Americans, particularly those communities that have been historically underserved. This article details how GSA’s designers are working to meet a historic moment in our nation’s history—and truly historic Executive Actions taken by the Biden-Harris Administration that can improve civic design across all levels of government. The authors of this article, Lashanda Hodge and Aaron Stienstra, are two civic design leaders working at this from different perspectives—one at the government-wide policy level, and one at the front-line service delivery-level—offering a unique reflection on how the federal government can embed a more equity, human-focused approach into the governing incentive system that aims to change long-term bureaucratic behavior, and implementing on-the-ground to deliver near-term results for the American people.

The Equity Executive Order

In both the private and public sectors, designers have often focused on creating experiences that work for the “average person,” sometimes at the expense of people that need something different. Civic designers fundamentally believe in incorporating the public’s perspectives in policy development, decision-making and co-design of public solutions and services. However, too often, we miss the mark. A more intentional, equity-focused approach to Human Centered Design methods is needed to truly enable all voices to be heard in the creation and implementation of government. Fortunately, we have a new call to action.

On his first day in office, President Biden issued Executive Order (13985) On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (“Equity Executive Order”). The Equity Executive Order contains powerful language – it states that “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy” (see Figure 1). It goes further by stating that “disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have been denied equal opportunity to individuals and communities.” It calls for a whole-of-government transformation, requiring all agencies to develop equity action plans to match the scale of the challenges that we face as a nation, including recovering from a global pandemic, promoting prosperity and economic growth, and tackling the climate crisis. In each of these areas, the federal government is particularly charged with understanding how our efforts advance outcomes for all people, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. As civic designers, this has been a foundational moment for us to re-center our approaches, from how we form teams, plan customer research, build bias checks into our processes, validate with and involve customers in our work.

An infographic consisting of 22 buttons in tan and three shades of blue with text quotes and phrases from Executive Order 13985: On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Five of them are: 1) Civil Rights; 2) Equity means the consistent and systemic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals; 3) Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our government; 4) Address the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly, and equally in underserved communities; and 5) Develop policies designed to advance equity.

Figure 1: Language included in Executive Order 13985: On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

CX and Equity

Fundamentally, improving customer experience requires (1) understanding the people you are trying to serve (“customers”) and (2) using that understanding to build and improve products, services, and service delivery with customers to ensure they are able to achieve intended goals. As we discussed earlier, in the public sector, where all members of the public are our customers, our customer experience can only be improved if we consider the design needs of all people to ensure they are able to find, understand, and access public services. Essentially, you can’t have good customer experience in the public sector without equity.

Take, for instance, the set of images depicting three people looking over a fence to see a baseball game (see Figure 2), which we’ve all come to recognize as an illustration of equity. Each individual has the same goal—to be able to watch the game—and those images exemplify the differences between support and equity. That illustration also translates to design. By providing everyone with the same solution, “Traditional CX” solutions likely mean that some individuals will be left out. Tailoring solutions based on need (“OK CX”), however, means that all people will be able to accomplish their goal because the design circumvents various problems, rather than eliminating the problem altogether. But removing barriers (“Good CX”) benefits people equally, in a more sustainable manner. Only by understanding all user experiences and barriers can we truly make decisions that provide a “Good CX” solution.

An illustration of three people of different heights trying to view a baseball game from behind a wooden fence is used to show different levels of customer experience across three panels. The first panel has Traditional (customer experience) CX in bold dark text above it, and a line below it that says, Assume everyone benefits from the same support. Each person stands on a box of the same height, but only the tall and medium height persons can see above the fence; the third cannot. The middle panel has OK CX in bold dark text above it, and a line below it that says, Everyone gets support to overcome rather than remove barrier. In this scene, the tall person does not need a box to see over the fence, the medium height person keeps their box to see over the fence, and the shortest person can now see over the fence by using the remaining two boxes. The third panel has Good CX above it, and the line below says, Causes of inequities or barriers are removed. Here, the fence and boxes are gone, and all can see the game clearly.

Interaction Institute for Social Change, interactioninstitute.org | Artist: Angus Maguire, madewithangus.com

Figure 2: Equality, equity, and justice as they apply to achieving good customer experience.

Implementing Government-wide

Throughout the past year, Aaron has been dedicated to OMB’s Customer Experience team, which also helped to support agencies across the government meet the ambitious mandates of this Executive Order. This team’s role has included consulting with agencies on assessments and plans, fostering a learning community among agencies, and conducting a study of equity assessment approaches and tools.

Importantly, the effort has utilized a few civic-design-oriented strategies. Systems thinking helped the team to structure Equity Executive Order requirements and activities in the context of other priorities, directives, and obligations, such as the federal budget cycle, performance framework for creating agency strategic plans and priority goals, and government-wide customer experience guidance. The team also utilized stakeholder understanding to learn about challenges and expectations of federal employees actually doing the work, building empathy for their needs, to shape support in a way that could empower their success. Additionally, the team framed the challenge by prioritizing activities that could immediately provide use in the short term, including by considering time and scale constraints. Learning from these strategies, the team designed a series of sessions including trainings on a variety of methods from stakeholder engagement to organizational change management for equity, office hours, peer-to-peer sharing, and building a library of methods and practices for advancing equity through a Request for Information (RFI) that received nearly 500 submissions, culminating in a report to the president on how the federal government might continue strengthening its approaches.

Grounding this work in civic design practices enabled us to listen and learn from our stakeholders; facilitate knowledge sharing across agencies; orient new parts of federal agencies to a  service and customer experience-oriented mindset; and demonstrate agility when testing and evolving engagement models.

Implementing on the Ground

Prior to the signing of the Equity Executive Order, Lashanda was working with an agency to further build their design and customer experience capacity through a partnership with GSA’s Centers of Excellence (COE). As a “customer” of federal CX guidance, the COE provides critical feedback to the OMB CX team, and we regularly collaborate to aggregate and share resources to aid in CX practices adoption across government.

As the partner agency quickly assembled their equity team to meet fast-moving deadlines in the Equity EO, they began to drive right into program assessment. However, the COE team worked with the agency to take a moment and put understanding people at the center of the approach—to enable the focusing on problems that matter most to the customer. The COE team and agency equity team applied system thinking and human-centered design to tackle these very large, complex, systemic problems they faced. These approaches work to ensure equity is embedded in design by (1) starting with the needs and barriers of underserved communities (that’s the Human Centered Design component), (2) enabling the sourcing of multiple solutions (systemic inequities are complex and built over time, and often require actions from many interconnected angles, rather than a single silver bullet), and finally, (3) opening the agency’s view outside of itself, understanding the roots of problems as well as a broader delivery system, with other actors, that will be part of the solution as well. The COE team of civic designers used three steps to bring the agency’s equity team along in that process to assess and redress inequities:

  1. Workshops. The COEs designed workshops to (a) reframe the problem space, using people’s experiences as the frame, rather than individual agency programs, (b) create a shared understanding of the system—how various policies, processes, and people together create that experience, and © assess the authority of the agency to make impactful change. The first workshop explored the customer perspective. The equity team was asked to identify who their customers are, including those underserved, the journey and barriers those customers experience, and what actors, policies, and technology within that journey contribute to those experiences. The second workshop explored the system perspective. Specifically, what forces or combinations of forces across the system have a demonstrated impact on their customers and barriers. The final workshops explored the agency perspective. The equity team went deeper to identify what levers the agency has at their disposal to pull, such as policies, funding, reporting requirements, to drive behavior. With a long list of these levers, the team had to decide what to do right now, recognizing that sometimes the most meaningful impact may be made where the agency has influence over the system rather than direct control.
  2. Customer Research. After those workshops concluded, the equity team began to engage directly with people about topics discussed during workshops—namely, their journeys and barriers. This included gathering a holistic customer perspective and establishing a relationship and partnership with them—an important step to redistributing power. The equity team reached out to local partners, such as advocacy groups and community organizations that were trusted in communities where the government-at-large may not be, to reach audiences the team couldn’t. The equity team also added a survey link to the website and social channels to broaden its reach.
  3. Prototyping. Once the equity team had completed the workshop series and connected with their customers, they co-developed interventions with people who experience these inequities to remove barriers and disrupt the system, giving them a place at the table in how things are designed for them. The agency won’t stop here; they are continuing to refine these interventions, considering when and how to implement, and do so in a way that will enable measurement of intended effects.

Working this way was different. The initial gut reaction to go right to the agency’s program structure as a place to start took some deliberate effort by the agency equity team to overcome, and we’re proud to have worked with them to facilitate this. Next time, they’ll have the muscle memory to start first with their customer, dive in to building the agency’s understanding of priorities and barriers through their customers’ eyes, and design with the communities their programs are meant to serve to create experiences that work better, drive equitable outcomes, and rebuild trust.

Working Together Towards Better Outcomes

Connecting these two ends of the spectrum—government-wide transformation and agency-level service implementation—is necessary to drive effective change. Creating a mandate from the top, continually informed by learnings from on the ground, iterating and improving guidance, support, resourcing, and approaches, can improve our whole-of-government strategy to improving equity. This collaboration illustrates how government-wide and agency-level work can inform and reinforce each other.

A timeline showing the activities completed by the two authors as they worked to support the equity assessment work and when the agency work was utilized to provide examples to others in the equity learning community program. There are 3 lanes stacked on one another. The top lane, in green, represents the federal administrative level that provides guidance and support to all agencies. It includes the title federal - administrative level and has a picture of Aaron Stienstra, one of the authors. The middle lane, in blue, represents the equity learning community program. The bottom lane, in purple, represents the agency level where that guidance and support was used and has a picture of the other author, Lashanda Hodge. Below all of the lanes is a timeline of months in 2021 from February to December. In each lane different activities are described and are placed above the month when the activity occurred. In April, at the agency level, the design team mapped the customer experience and that information was provided to the admin level and presented as a part of the equity learning community program. In May, the agency defined system forces and defined agency power levers. In June, the agency team defined research/engagement goals and began outreach, which was again provided to the admin level and used as another example to share with the equity learning community program when discussing stakeholder engagement.

Figure 3: Working together at two different but complementary levels to achieve better outcomes.

Recent Actions To Improve Equity and Experience

More recent mandates have helped designers and public servants make even more progress in connecting equity to customer experience, but we also need strong partnerships and collaboration within and across agencies, levels of government, and even sectors. We must change agency culture to effectively embed these practices.

Recently, two new executive actions called on agencies to do even more to ensure we use design and customer experience principles to deliver equitable outcomes—the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) and Executive Order 14058: Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery To Rebuild Trust in Government (the CX EO). The PMA prioritizes delivery of equitable and secure federal services and customer experience. It calls on the government to center decisions around the customer—the American public—through 3 specific strategies.

The first strategy is to improve the service design, digital products, and customer-experience management of federal High Impact Service Providers (HISPs) by reducing customer burden, addressing inequities, and streamlining processes. The second is to design, build, and manage Government service delivery for key life experience that cut across Federal agencies. The third is to identify and prioritize the development of Federal shared products, services, and standards that enable simple, seamless, and secure customer experiences across High Impact Service Providers.

On December 13, 2021, President Biden signed the CX EO, charging all entities of government to refocus their mission on the people that they serve. Within a government context, this was a big deal—the Executive Order states that “it is the policy of the United States that, in a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, improving service delivery and customer experience should be fundamental priorities. The Government’s performance must be measured empirically and by on-the-ground results for the people of the United States, especially for their experiences with services delivered.”

The EO directs specific agencies to increasingly coordinate government-wide experiences—particularly those that require navigation across multiple federal agencies. Importantly, the CX EO calls on those entities designated as “High Impact Service Providers,” such as the IRS, Veterans Health Administration, and Social Security Administration, to assess their in-house Customer Experience capabilities in order to build and mature their abilities to conduct CX and Equity work for years to come.

We anticipate that both the PMA and CX EO will help to reinforce the prioritization of improved experience among federal leaders, assessment and measurement of equity in service delivery, and recruitment of more civic designers to government. Momentum will grow as these practices become a part of how the government does business.

Government programs and services are designed, developed, and deployed through an intricate web of state, local, and federal agencies, along with industry partners. Within each of those levels there exists a set of programs, funding streams, policies, and delivery mechanisms that work together to help programs succeed. Success also requires collaboration, data sharing, and collective solutioning. This means breaking down silos at every level, between agencies and within them. Using service blueprinting, ecosystem mapping and systems maps, we can begin to explore these intricacies and identify where there are opportunities to change negative reinforcing causal loops. This mapping can help create a shared understanding and help define opportunity areas to address barriers for all people (both inside and outside the government), but this can be done with both employees and customers. We anticipate that as more civic designers are hired, these practices and facilitated conversations will become commonplace, allowing us to both tackle old problems and anticipate and mitigate potential new problems across the web of service delivery and service value chain to create equitable outcomes.

Finally, we have to actively embrace Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA). Executive Order 14035: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce defines what each of the terms means. “Diversity means the practice of including the many communities, identities, races, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, cultures, and beliefs of the American people, including underserved communities. Equity means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment. Inclusion means the recognition, appreciation, and use of the talents and skills of employees of all backgrounds. Accessibility means the design, construction, development, and maintenance of facilities, information and communication technology, programs, and services so that all people, including people with disabilities, can fully and independently use them.” An intentional focus on each of these together can create a work environment that yields high performance, cultural competence, and enables the organization to create equitable outcomes for its customers. This means not only hiring diverse populations but also ensuring a diverse group of internal voices are included and heard. To do that, we have to create a safe space for conversations that challenge traditional views with everyone recognizing that we can’t out-think unconscious bias.

Some of these actions are encouraged in the CX EO but are not required. We hypothesize that as HISPs continue to do this work and prove that this approach is valuable for the agency, its customers, and its employees, the momentum from these actions will be hard to reverse—and that’s a good thing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As GSA Administrator has conveyed “Federal websites need to be built to work intuitively and equitably for the millions of Americans we serve in every community. Increasingly, this is how we deliver government effectively to taxpayers.” the agency is partnering with OMB. OMB Acting Director Shalanda Young said in her letter to the president: “It is a difficult realization that federal agencies have not fully delivered value to all of their constituents. It is disheartening when a data scan reveals results that are at odds with organizational intentions and core national values. And yet, it is only through this ethic of learning and a commitment to evidence that governments become truly able to serve their people.” By leveraging a civic design approach to customer experience that embeds equity we can create a ripple effect (see Figure 4) that influences the culture of how Federal employees think about equity, shifting our collective culture. That can then influence how we do business, improving our ability to redesign the service experience for all the people we serve.

An image of water droplets creating ripples against a white background. On the left is blue text that reads, Creating a ripple effect to have enormous impact and rebuild trust. A drop of water about to hit the surface is labeled: Equity and CX (customer experience). The first inner ripple is labeled: Culture. The next larger ripple is labeled: Business Strategy. Three larger outer ripples are labeled: Better, More Equitable Experiences.

iStock.com/VRVIRUS

Figure 4: Customer experience and equity create better, more equitable experiences.

HCD and customer experience are about learning directly from people to improve their experience. The federal government has been providing customer experience long before the equity EO—just as we have in our respective roles. The equity EO transformed how we think about government CX. Customer experience misses the mark if some individuals are left out or excluded, either intentionally or unintentionally. Civic design will help to bring equity and CX together. And, as civic designers, we’re in a privileged position to help. With that privilege comes power; however, we believe that people with privilege can use it to empower the people and voices of those that we serve.

We hope that soon, it becomes standard practice to meaningfully incorporate the voices of the people we serve into all actions the federal government takes, rebalancing power to correct historic inequities, building a future of prosperity and opportunity that serves all Americans.

Works Cited

  1. “The Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision.” The Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision, 2021, https://www.performance.gov/pma/vision/. Accessed 16 February 2022.

  2. Office of Management and Budget. “Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity: Report to the President.” Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity: Report to the President, July 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/OMB-Report-on-E013985-Implementation_508-Compliant-Secure-v1.1.pdf. Accessed 15 February 2022.

  3. Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President. “Methods and Leading Practices for Advancing Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through Government.” Federal Register, 05 May 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/05/05/2021-09109/methods-and-leading-practices-for-advancing-equity-and-support-for-underserved-communities-through. Accessed 05 March 2022.

  4. United States, Executive Office of the President. “Executive Order 13985: Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” The Federal Register, 20 January 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/01/25/2021-01753/advancing-racial-equity-and-support-for-underserved-communities-through-the-federal-government. Accessed 15 February 2022.

  5. United States, Executive Office of the President. “Executive Order 14035: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce.” The Federal Register, 30 June 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/06/30/2021-14127/diversity-equity-inclusion-and-accessibility-in-the-federal-workforce. Accessed 04 March 2022.

  6. United States, Executive Office of the President. “Executive Order 14058: Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery To Rebuild Trust in Government.” Federal Register, 16 December 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/12/16/2021-27380/transforming-federal-customer-experience-and-service-delivery-to-rebuild-trust-in-government. Accessed 16 February 2022.

About the Authors

Lashanda Hodge  | U.S. General Services Administration

Lashanda Hodge is the Managing Director of the Customer Experience and Contact Center, Centers of Excellence (CoE) at GSA, managing a team of experts who work with government agencies to improve customer experience (CX) and contact center operations. Lashanda has over 15 years of experience and expertise in customer experience consulting, human-centered design, and program and project management. She helps mature agency CX capabilities as well as leads the creation of compelling experiences for customers through human-centered design.

Aaron Stienstra  | U.S. General Services Administration

Aaron Stienstra is a Senior Design Strategist with the Office of Customer Experience at GSA. He is currently on an extended assignment with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where he’s a design lead with the federal customer experience team, and he supports the Equity Learning Community to implement the Biden Administration’s Equity Executive Order. Before joining GSA, Aaron was a Human Innovation Fellow and Designer with the Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where he did extensive human-centered design work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.