Three Keys to Providing More Equitable Government Services
The federal government is working to remove long-standing barriers to equity and access to the programs and services it provides, as they should. Unlike private companies, which can choose which customers to target, government has a mandate to serve everyone, and it should be the leader in designing and delivering equitable services. Although the government has established a vision for equitable government services, it is still catching up with reality for many of its clients. Three critical steps can help agencies chart the course for more equitable government services.
Improvements to the federal client experience have streamlined many government services and improved access to them. Yet those who need the most help often face the greatest obstacles. These may include people with limited internet access, no credit history or language barriers – challenges that lead to inequalities across socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. Notable examples include access disparities coronavirus vaccines, inequality of opportunity to secure federal loans for small businesses in Black, Hispanic, and other communities, and less financial support for predominantly black communities following natural disasters.
This is not a new issue – organizations and leaders have long advocated for improved government assistance to underserved communities. But the Biden administration Executive Decree on Improving Racial Equity, released in January, sets a new bar, providing a much-needed way forward to assess and address the challenges of equity and access.
Achieving equity and access to government services requires a fundamental change in the way federal programs and policies are designed and delivered, and in the way services and products are delivered. Equity and access must be built into all elements of the program from the start.
To achieve this vision, some agencies are increasingly adopting human-centered design practices to create services around client needs, rather than agency organizational structures or programs. This is an essential step to improve the customer experience. Yet agencies too often design services around their most common users, who often won’t encounter the barriers faced by underserved communities. By designing for the average, agencies miss the margins and risk failing to fulfill their public service mission.
To improve equity and access, government leaders must understand the full range of potential clients for their services, including those who most need assistance but may not currently receive it. This means gaining insight into the experiences of, for example, eligible customers who are least likely to access a service. Maybe these people don’t apply, or their applications are disproportionately rejected, or the program doesn’t effectively meet their needs.
To serve all eligible people, agencies need to change the way they work. Here are three steps federal leaders can take to move in the right direction.
Conduct more inclusive customer research. Leaders need a clear idea of which groups or demographics are having the most difficulty accessing their agency’s services, and a plan for including those groups in client search and customer engagement efforts. stakeholders. It may be that the people the agency most needs to hear from are the least likely to participate in a client survey or listening session, perhaps due to issues such as past discrimination that makes them less likely to trust the government. Special efforts may be needed to involve them. Agencies could, for example, partner with community organizations that have long-established relationships in communities and are trusted by key stakeholders, provide translation services or interpreters, or pay participants for their time. of contribution.
Use data more efficiently. Government leaders have understood the need for better data to understand equity issues, recognizing that without accurate information, there is no way to see if disparities exist in who receives government programs. Although agencies may have been reluctant to collect or apply demographic data due to privacy concerns, obtaining and using data can improve results. Agencies can use existing data sources, including public spending data from USAspending.gov and census information.
Demographics and other relevant data on those accessing services – and on the broader eligible population – will likely reveal equity issues. Leaders must use this data and evidence to make smart decisions to address these challenges.
For example, requiring onerous eligibility documents to prevent fraud sometimes leads to inequities in the allocation of federal benefits. People from underserved communities are often less likely to have bank accounts and financial statements to verify their income. Agencies need to reassess the relative benefits of security measures and their impact on access. They should consider launching data-driven pilot programs using innovative approaches and commercially proven technologies that can streamline program access while minimizing fraud. One such approach involves sharing data between agencies, so that information stored by one agency about an individual can be used to verify that person’s eligibility for another government program.
Strengthen organizational capacity. The stakes for improving equity are too high to be “another assigned task”. Many agencies lack the capacity and staffing expertise to fully engage stakeholders using modern techniques and tools, especially people in underserved communities who can be the hardest to reach. For example, some organizations provide language services using free tools, which may result in inaccurate translations. Investing in the development of knowledge and expertise, dedicating resources and ensuring that the service design team is itself diverse are key to getting this job done well.
Leaders have the power to reduce barriers and make services fairer and more equitable for everyone. It’s important that they start now and show the country how it’s done.
Loren DeJonge Schulman is Vice President for Research and Analytics at the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Public Service Partnership. Kathy Conrad is Director of Digital Government at Accenture Federal Services. She works with the Accenture Federal Studio to help agencies use design thinking and service design, data, and technology to solve complex challenges, create exceptional experiences, and achieve mission-driven results.