For equity in government services, it’s time for a paradigm shift – MeriTalk
Almost two years ago, life fundamentally changed overnight. People from all walks of life and from all communities have needed government services to get through difficult times, and the federal government has responded by authorizing initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and economic impact payments.
This was an urgent and visible exercise in how agencies can and should come together and coordinate to deliver essential services.
People trying to access pandemic programs and other government services for the first time have experienced what government employees and those who live and work in underserved communities have known for decades. years: a client is simultaneously served by more than one program, or even a single agency. But for many of those in a state of emergency or unable to navigate a complex web of services, unintended government silos can lead to disparities in the distribution of support.
Equity in service delivery is now in the spotlight for many government leaders, who are faced with an important question: is it time to change the paradigm of how federal services are developed, delivered and provided?
Promoting equity in government services through a client-centered approach
For many years, the focus has been on customer experience (CX) in government. From streamlining public-facing websites to developing AI-powered chatbots, CX efforts have steadily improved day-to-day digital interactions with government platforms. But unfortunately, they cannot report to people and communities without regular access to digital platforms, or knowing how and when to ask for help. Simply put, government services meant to help people and communities achieve equality and reach their full potential often fail to reach those who need them most.
The Biden administration answered the call for fairness by releasing the Executive Order on Promoting Racial Equity and Supporting Underserved Communitieswhich presents a whole-of-government equity agenda, and the Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery Transformation Executive Order to Restore Trust in Government. This clear and renewed commitment is an ongoing step towards large-scale change and will allow agencies to look internally, identify programs for improvement and prioritize equity for mission value. But as we look to the future, a sustained and radical paradigm shift requires fundamental shifts in service delivery.
Everyone has a role to play in addressing the needs of diverse populations and underserved communities – including our own organization as a government partner. Here are four areas to disassociate this issue from any agency or organization and help direct our actions forward.
- Building Connective Tissue to Advance Equity
Operating for equity ultimately requires shared responsibility among federal agencies rather than individual organizations assessing their own progress. Establishing centralized accountability and shared services, for example through the OMB, would help agencies to come together, tap into collective resources and support the implementation of the equity agenda. This would allow federal programs to collaborate on solutions for the public, share best practices, and benefit from standardized accountability measures.
We see the government moving towards standardization and shared responsibility in other areas, such as the creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), which oversees cybersecurity initiatives to defend federal networks. Similarly, as we mature our understanding of how equity can be integrated into mission areas, a government service oversight body ensures that programs and benefits are developed and administered in a standard, data-driven, regardless of agency. Such a body would foster a truly client-centred approach and provide a richer understanding of diverse populations and underserved communities.
- Take a holistic, customer-focused approach to services
Standardizing a whole-of-government approach to services puts the focus on the client – not the agency – and fosters a better understanding of the needs of diverse populations and underserved communities. While each agency has its own mission and requires unique systems, as a collective they can holistically examine and mitigate the complexities and inequities that arise as people navigate government.
Take the example of a family affected by a natural disaster. They can seek immediate services from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, housing assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and unemployment insurance through the Department of Labor. Mapping services across organizations can help uncover critical gaps between them that are sorely felt in times of need, to create solutions oriented around clients and communities – not around agencies.
- Address differences between federal programs and local experiences
While new policies and programs may emerge at the federal level, implementation may unfold differently at the local level – where operations may depend on a multitude of factors, including capacity and feasibility.
Local communities may not have the technical resources or infrastructure to access essential services and benefits – or to deploy federal resources – as intended. For this reason, it is imperative to consider capacity building as part of the operationalization of equity initiatives.
For example, consider the federal grant application process: it is a formal system to navigate, with federally developed application criteria. Some communities are not well prepared to compete in this system, may have struggled to access funding in the past, or may have experienced disinvestment due to top-down criteria. How can we reduce technical barriers – from application complexity to reporting requirements – to increase opportunities for more people and communities? And how can we rewrite the criteria and outcomes to account for the more diverse challenges that grants address?
Grant funding is just one example. As agencies begin to evaluate programs, small changes like these at the federal level can improve equitable access to resources on the ground. And over time, it is possible to invest in building capacity in a program-agnostic way so that more programs and services, from health to education, can access basic infrastructure and resources.
- Think boldly about what we can innovate in the future
In today’s environment, people have to seek out their own federal resources — and they can’t get programs they don’t know how to ask for. Ultimately, government services that could make a real difference are often hidden from the people they are meant to help, from veterans in need of health care to small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
Earlier we talked about a family following a natural disaster. In the future, what if this family proactively received information from the government about all the support they are entitled to in case of need? What if they didn’t have to independently navigate a slew of different organizations, discover available services, and submit duplicate information? A proactive, customer-centric model has the power to disrupt experiences and improve equitable access to essential services.
We can begin to imagine benefit delivery and eligibility in a holistic way, where the government has a platform to collect and assess data from all federal organizations. This would allow agencies to work together and reverse the experience by actively contacting people based on the data they already have instead of needing people to come alone. With a deep understanding of the full customer journey across the government continuum and where agencies together can have the most meaningful mission impact, we can begin to create a framework for this data-driven future.
Change is happening across government, and now is the time to harness that momentum and challenge ourselves to envision a new paradigm. We are seeing federal organizations engaging with customer segments in new ways to fully understand what needs are not being met or what services are not being delivered equitably. The next opportunity will be to build the connective tissue between these efforts, focus on incremental success, and create the conditions for agencies to collaborate for the long term.
In this series, “Equity as a National Priority: An Interagency Perspective,” Booz Allen discusses the topic of promoting equity in federal government programss – offering prospects for a framework that prioritizes equity and inclusive service delivery to the public.