Service Design for Government
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hot air balloon provides an escape similar to innovation series

Technical Assent’s Inspiring Service Summer Series

At Technical Assent, we believe that a key component of providing exceptional service is rooted in providing an exceptional customer experience. In May 2016, we launched a four-month design thinking effort called Inspiring Service Summer Series, or ISSS for short. ISSS was professional development, but it was also our tool for looking in the mirror and working on our own service delivery as a company. Or, in other words, working “in a problem, on a problem.”

We included all staff members in this effort, with non-client-facing staff and consultants learning and contributing equally. Additionally, ISSS had a secondary purpose as a forum for testing virtual collaboration and facilitation methods our company developed.

Why we did this

One goal was to ensure that all Technical Assent employees are well-equipped to deliver “Services that INSPIRE” to our clients, including access to the necessary knowledge, skills, tools, and other resources. We also wanted to continue to build employee comfort with design-thinking tools—especially in a virtual environment—and learn more about ourselves. Ultimately, we wanted to create something of value for our customers by improving ourselves.

The graphic below summarizes our #ISSS virtual design journey.

What emerged from the effort

Our starting point, as always, was our customers, because our solutions will ultimately be measured by their impact to them. Based on customer input, we spent considerable time reflecting and defining what they need from us, what they really want, and how they want it delivered. That definition of inspiring service became the foundation of everything that came afterward. We identified focus areas based on client needs and our corporate goals, brainstormed over 70 ideas to make ourselves better, and assembled prototype teams to bring select ideas to life.

So now, after nearly four months of work, we emerged with three completely different innovations we’re now in the process of implementing.

We are sharing our design journey because it is something that can be repeated. As with any of these types of efforts, it was less about the specific technique or method and more about the richness of the dialogue that evolved.

Overall, the exercise was a great success and as a result, we’re confident our entire staff is better positioned to provide the kind of inspiring service our clients most need. We learned a lot along the way, and we look forward to sharing some of those insights in the future.

eli whitney innovation in muskets

What Eli Whitney’s 1798 Gun-Making Contract Can Teach Us About 21st Century Defense Innovation

In 1798, faced with potential war against France, President John Adams directed a threefold increase in the number of ready army soldiers.  At the time, gun-making was a complex craft; skilled gunsmiths worked by hand to create each distinctive weapon.  The young government didn’t have the capability to manufacture the weapons it needed, so Adams turned to private industry for support.

Eli Whitney, the famed inventor of the cotton gin, won one of the 28-month contracts to produce 10,000 “stands of weapons,” enough to outfit 80% of the army with new muskets. As the story goes, after two years of contract performance, Whitney had produced exactly zero guns. Instead, he had focused his attention on building a better system for building muskets. He built the factory and the machinery, trained a labor force for how to use it, and developed repeatable assembly process.  The result was the first weapons system where one musket behaved similarly to another and used interchangeable parts.

Outputs Vs. Outcomes in Defense Innovation

While there are certainly some starting points here for a conversation about acquisition reform, I’m focusing on a different, larger issue: how a narrow focus on outputs can distract us from pursuing the right outcomes.  Our military faces similar challenges today as they did in 1798, sharing  a need to rapidly scale its capability and evolve to multi-dimensional threat. Back then, they did it with more soldiers and more muskets; today we do it with much more sophisticated, integrated weapon systems.

We’re living in a new era for innovation in the Defense industry.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter is shaping and expanding an innovation unit in Silicon Valley (DIUx)—and the Department of Homeland Security is following suit.  Professors at Stanford University have students and soldiers collaborating to identify “hacks” for the way DoD does business. Groups like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) are facilitating discussions about major issues the Third Offset, Force of the Future, and Goldwater-Nichols Act Reform.  Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its draft of the 2017 Defense Authorization that splits the Pentagon’s largest office in an effort to improve management of research and development  efforts.

These examples suggest a consensus that fostering innovation in our defense machine is imperative to retaining our “edge” over competitors and obstacles—whether we are providing disaster relief and humanitarian support, or fighting large ground wars.  What government and defense leaders  don’t seem to agree on is where to start. What we really need is a system where we are continually getting better at getting better, where real change can happen faster than in 15-20 year increments.

Disrupting the Dominant Cycle of Thinking

Whitney’s brilliance is that he disrupted the dominant cycle of thinking at the time.  Instead of cranking out thousands of hand-crafted rifles, bayonets, and ramrods, he focused on building a system where new technology could be produced faster.  However, our current collective efforts to increase our technological advantages (e.g., Third Offset) seem more focused on buying better muskets—drone muskets, cyber muskets, nano-muskets, human-musket collaboration, inter-continental ballistic muskets—than building a system of innovation.  That needs to change.

Here’s a DoD-specific analogy for what that actually means.  Consider Innovation as an organizational capability gap.  DoD evaluates these gaps across Doctrine, Organization, Training, Muskets (i.e., Materiel such as equipment, tools, systems), Leadership, Policy, Facilities, and Policy (DOTMLPF-P).  Rather than looking first to innovative Materiel (“better muskets”) as we usually do, let’s first actually sit down and think hard about how we can innovate the way the department trains and equips our personnel to solve the problem in the context of the environment in which they must solve it.

Evolving Faster and More Effectively than the Competition

The ultimate strategy to counter competitors’ advantages (real or perceived) is a sustained, organic ability to improve and evolve yourself faster and more effectively than your competitors—rather than building a new portfolio of technologies.  If our objective is to create a system to get better at being better, there are two logical places to start:

Make the “Ability to Adapt” a factor for readiness.

Being ready to meet the demands of a mission is not simply a matter of assessing whether or not you have the right “kit” for the operation.  There is too much variation in the types of environments, the types of missions, and the circumstances surrounding those factors for you to assess readiness on equipment alone.  You have to assess whether or not the people and processes who will use the kit have the ability to adapt what they have (and don’t have) to fit the needs of the operation.

We need personnel who are ready to integrate themselves and their kit into the operation and be successful.  We need processes that allow them to do that—both in the field and in the headquarters functions that support them.  One way to do this might be to re-purpose some of the procurement budget for exercises. Don’t just assess readiness, test it.  Make these exercises faster to plan, less cumbersome to host and participate in, and cover more mission scenarios.  The more frequently we test ourselves, the better we understand our abilities, our needs, and the more we are inspired to innovate with real purpose.

Make non-materiel adaptability and innovation a tenet of the highest level guidance and plans.  

Strategic planning, policy, and doctrine provide a foundation on which much of the DoD’s ’s operations rest.  Like the mindset of our innovation efforts to date, these high level guidance and plans can also become too focused on “muskets.”  This is problematic because these high-level documents take years to formally update.  What’s published is often “behind the times”—describing situations and solutions that occurred in the past rather than enabling future success in what may be a completely new environment.  Fixing the strategic foundation that guides the way we “do” defense requires: 1) moving guidance, policy, and doctrine away from 3-5-year update cycles; and, 2) maintaining focus on enabling adaptability and innovation rather than focus on musket-based (“Materiel”) solutions.

 

John DiLuna and Danielle Wiederoder wrote this with me.

acquisition innovation will yield better outcomes for government services

So you’re an Acquisition Innovation Advocate – now what?

The new initiative announced by the White House to encourage the establishment of Acquisition Innovation “Labs” in Federal Agencies is a great step towards facilitating a culture that facilitates ingenuity and innovation.  One aspect of the initiative urges Departments and Agencies to appoint Acquisition Innovation  Advocates as a means to foster greater innovation, to stand up Innovation “Labs“, — really just a commitment to experiment with better ways to solve mission challenges through procurement, but I’m going to stick with Lab for the rest of this post — and to participate in an established council.  If you find yourself named as your agency’s Acquisition Innovation  Advocate or otherwise leading an Acquisition Innovation Lab, I offer a sample roadmap that has an excellent track record in innovation efforts, especially those with the sense to run like a start-up.

If you want to move your Agency’s Lab forward from “good idea” to “real impact”, you need to overcome inertia: on Day 90, you need to have at least 3 pilots launched. This means you need to have something of value to offer to willing customers with active requirements and procurement problems to solve.  Which means you need a thorough understanding of the requirements in the pipeline, the missions of the owner of each requirement, what they are trying to accomplish with each requirement, and the specific procurement challenges most impactful to each.  And you have to do all of this in the context of your agency mission and strategy.

This probably sounds like a lot.  You might be anxious.  An important way to minimize stress will be to minimize the spin/churn cycle.  If you change an experiment while you’re running it, it’s impossible to assess the result.

Start in a green field.  The FAR isn’t a labyrinth; it’s a giant prairie with some critical fences and some occasional giant rocks.  OFPP and the federal CIO told you to focus on technology procurements.  I wouldn’t limit your opportunity for innovation to just IT.  Focusing on IT and digital is good – these have gotten a lot of attention in recent years – but looking at services more broadly is the biggest opportunity: 2/3 of the federal government’s $437 billion in contracts during Fiscal Year 2015 were for services – and IT/Communications products weren’t even half of the 1/3 that was product/supplies spend (FPDS-NG).  Look at the entire procurement journey – from requirement concept to contract closeout – and be open to trade-offs.  Look at the three major groups of participants – the customer, the procurement shop, and the prospective vendor.

First, lay a strong foundation by setting out to make your innovations a win-win-win for each of the three types of participants – your customer, the procurement office, and the vendors who will offer solutions.  Try to do this in your first two weeks.  Be clear about what your agency wants from this effort.  Is it the cheapest, fastest solutions? Or more about the quality of the service or product (utility & warranty)?  How does the customer experience factor into acquisitions (both from the government program manager and the vendor perspectives)?  This will drive what you measure and how.  Calling in support from an artificial intelligence system that lives in the cloudcan’t help you here.

Take this opportunity to spend a few days re-learning your agency as a buyer. What does your agency really buy? What does the requirement pipeline look like?  Based on this discovery and learning, identify major areas of opportunity.  If these are still IT, great. Run with it.

Second, recruit early adopters as customers for your Lab.  To do this you need to craft your value proposition – why these customers should take a chance on the Lab: be explicit, be objective, and be honest.  Aim to do this by the end of Month 2.  If you want to end up with three strong pilots, you need to start with 20-30 prospects.  An email announcing the experiment is one way to raise awareness.  You should also consider a road show among the customers who already have requirements in the acquisition forecast.  Use these early adopter prospects to build a pipeline of upcoming customer requirements for the Lab.  From this pipeline, you will draw your 3 pilot procurements.  There may be some back-and-forth with customers as you recruit them to participate.

To narrow the list, you first establish criteria for what constitutes a good pilot candidate – measured against the utility, warranty, and experience objectives you laid out in the first two weeks.  Next, you and your team do a first round of scoping these potential pilots.  What mission outcomes is the customer trying to accomplish or enable with this procurement? What’s the customer particular procurement problem, how might you solve it, what would it take, what are the obstacles, etc.?  Force-rank these potential pilots, and then take a couple of weeks to refine the scope of the best half with the customer.  Repeat this down-select process toward the end of month two.  As part of selecting your first three pilots, be sure that you can measure what you need to measure for each in a timely and accurate manner.  You can reduce angst by keeping this part simple; just focus on how each furthers your acquisition innovation outcomes.

Third, select the top three pilots, execute, and “land the plane”.    By Day 90, launch your pilots.  Measure your results. Listen to your customers, the acquisition professionals involved in each pilot, and the vendors who offering solutions (and those who aren’t).  Read between the lines.  Measure impact and perceptions on both sides of the acquisition equation (government and industry).  The people involved will make or break any innovation.

As you think about the pilots, understand what behavior you incentivized or disincentivized?  Are procurements appealing only to well-funded, established companies that can afford to take the risk?  Does the approach encourage competition?  What are the costs to bid on work relative to the award?  What is the impact to the market?  “If my agency continues this behavior…”

This roadmap should get you started on building and measuring your experiments with better ways to solve your agency’s mission challenges using procurement.  Next you need to feed what you learn back into more experiments and start scaling what works.

I love thinking about this stuff, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.

SECDEF Ash Carter reviews DOD innovations

The DoD: Becoming a Good Neighbor in the Community They Started

I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a year now and I continue to be inspired by this geographic center of mass for innovation. It is no wonder that both the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security have both recently announced new programs with offices located in Silicon Valley to tap into that innovative spirit.

The Secretary of Defense’s program is the Defense Innovation Initiative (DII) with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) positioning the DoD to be more open to the infusing of non-traditional technical ideas and talent.  The DIUx set up its Mountain View, Calif., office in August.

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a Center for New American Security workshop to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Defense about how to capture and infuse some of the Silicon Valley magic into the Department of Defense.  The group of people included members of the DIUx, defense industry associations, think tanks, and entrepreneurs.

The primary observation from the attendees focused on the increased requests from senior federal executives to tour innovative companies which has devolved into little more than a rote parade of military VIPs.  While “jumping through hoops” and “dog and pony shows” are common jargon in government, Silicon Valley innovators are fueled by taking action on real problems and quickly pivoting until they discover the optimal solution. However, the aspect that is most ironic to me is Silicon Valley itself was launched by DoD initiatives (See Steve Blank’s talk on the  Secret History of Silicon Valley), which means, at least at one time, that DoD knew how to effectively engage innovators and how to channel their spirit into meaningful work.

DoD can’t be an absentee owner of their new vacation property in Silicon Valley; they need to be a fully integrated member of the neighborhood.  To be enfolded in the epicenter of innovation, the DoD will have to start out by fitting in with the culture.  I’ve seen this opinion echoed in articles online, like Colin Clark’s “Can SecDef Carter Win Over Silicon Valley?”.

One thing I have noticed in my time living in the Bay Area is that many people close out their meetings with the same question:

“How can I help you?”

I have found something hugely powerful in this question as it seems to embody part of the culture that has made Silicon Valley companies so successful. In the asking of this question, it implies the asker is willing to take action and it supposes the receiver knows what they need.

Perhaps the DoD’s path to an invitation to the neighborhood block party is in recapturing the very spirit that helped build the neighborhood in the first place and being ready to answer “How can I help you?”

improving patient experience is key to improving healthcare

3 Ways to Improve Healthcare Outcomes by Following the Patient Experience

Consider all the touchpoints between a patient and a hospital for a single doctor visit – scheduling the appointment, receiving an appointment reminder, navigating endless hallways, filling out forms and waiting, maybe more waiting, seeing the nurse – then the doctor – then the nurse, then stopping at pharmacy, billing, and insurance. Healthcare professionals and patients likely view these experiences quite differently – what the hospital may view as an efficient workflow to maintain consistent quality of care for hundreds of patients, patients may process as redundant, glitchy, or even careless.

The medical community has long been committed to patient outcomes as the primary metric for measuring quality of care. Patient Experience, however, includes interactions with medical and non-medical staff; all the processes, policies, and business rules; and the digital media and mobile technology they encounter along the way. These concepts of Outcomes & Experience are not mutually exclusive; however the question remains as to the extent to which patient experience can directly influence patient outcomes. Here are three examples of the direct impact of a patient-centered approach.

Improve Satisfaction by 20%. In the highly interactive exchanges among the medical staff and patient, most medical professionals will do anything to make a patient’s stay as comfortable as possible. The challenge for the medical institution becomes how to maintain that same perception of care as the patient moves through the more business-oriented functions of the organization.

Increase Employee Engagement by 20-30%. Patients are keenly sensitive to discontinuity in their experience and have an innate sense for when organizations deliver stove-piped services. When seeking out opportunities to improve, Patient Experience provides a unique vantage point to create a dialogue among stove-piped departments about how to make things better. It offers a lens by which to view the convergence of talent, tools, and technology (regardless of who owns the asset) as they come together at a specific touchpoint to add value for a patient.

Lower Cost to Serve by 15-20%. Despite their intrinsic value, the two points above may be insufficient to convince Administrators to invest in improving the patient experience. This approach makes several strategic and economic contributions – understanding the Patient Experience helps us understand what is really important to patients and, equally, what is not. This enables targeted investments that are tied to business outcomes such as efficient service delivery, workforce productivity, and a more competitive cost structure.

customer experience in government

For the People…Government as a Service Business (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second of a 2-part article.  You may want to start with Part 1 located here

Government is a Service Business

Service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating the outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific cost and risks. When we purchase something “as a service,” we want to directly experience the outcome or benefit without having to worry about the know-how, systems, and processes it takes to deliver it.

To say that government is a services provider is to say that government delivers value to the governed (that is you and me) by facilitating outcomes the governed want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks of undertaking to achieve these outcomes individually or even in small groups. Take National Defense as an example of a government-provided service. Most people will agree that a nation has a much better chance of withstanding a foreign aggressor if it maintains an army than if the people were to rely on the tenacity of individuals or the valiant efforts of small militias. Other examples include the construction of roads and canals, the conduct of diplomacy and foreign affairs, and general enforcement of the laws of the land.

The 5 Government Services

In fact, everything government does can be categorized as one of five types of services.

  • National Services are government services to the nation as a whole, without intent to benefit one group, region, or industry more than another, including regulation that affects more than one industry. National services are the purest sense of government services and we associate them with the missions of the Department of Defense, the Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Citizen Services are provided directly to members of the public or individuals. Examples include Veterans Benefits, Social Security, Federal Student Aid, Pensions, and the DMV.
  • Industry Services are provided for the benefit of specific industries either as a whole or to firms directly, including industry-specific regulation. Examples include the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and much of the Department of Agriculture.
  • Regional Services are provided to or for the benefit of discrete geographic areas. This includes parts or all of multiple States. Examples are the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
  • Intra-governmental Services are provided to other parts of the government. The work of the General Services Administration is the quintessential example of this type of service. Internal or Shared service providers with departments and agencies such as human resources, acquisition or procurement, information technology, and finance are also forms of intra-governmental services.

Call to Action

Service is about delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes. Customers are the recipient of the value delivered by the service — usually, but not necessarily, the ones who pay for a service. A family goes out to dinner, they are the restaurant’s customers; you buy a new pair of shoes at the mall, you are the shoe store’s customer; a homeless woman receives shelter and meals from a donor-funded organization, the woman — as opposed to the donors — is the organization’s customer.

While these examples are seemingly straightforward, this concept can get lost in the day-to-day operations of a service organization. Customers are a discrete subset of their stakeholders, but at times these other stakeholders have more direct influence, control, or presence which can sometimes distract us from the needs of the consumers. For this reason, it is critical to build a customer-driven mindset into the culture of the organization and integrate it systemically into the core operations of the service. In addition to being good for customers, it also renews the sense of purpose that likely called employees to public service in the first place. Service business philosophy permeates all aspects of program management.

In our practice, we identified nearly a dozen key aspects of a government services where a customer-focused shift can significantly improve overall program performance. This means that solutions to improve your organization’s customer experience will also have a direct impact on your mission’s bottom line — lower costs, more efficient processes, higher employee productivity. Look closely and you will find there is a role for your customers in nearly every aspect of your business.

Not understanding that the mission is always to do something for someone also has consequences. Opportunities to grow on what government does well or eliminate waste are not detected early enough. Not understanding that every mission has a customer means that public service will only sometimes include customer service and public satisfaction as legitimate metrics. Not thinking of itself as a service business means that improvements in government performance will be isolated and driven by a random cadre of passionate leaders constantly challenged by the long-term average of “good enough for government work.”

It Is Time to Change the Tone of Government Services

Government is fundamentally a service business, at least for nations in which government is founded on the consent of the governed. All who touch government would be decidedly better off if they conceived of government as a service business and operated as such. This extensive ecosystem includes government executives and employees, legislators, judges, suppliers, service providers, consultants, lobbyists, and every citizen.

Once we acknowledge that government is fundamentally the provision of services we will be better able to assess government value and performance. The debates over what missions the government should and shouldn’t undertake will continue as long as the Republic stands, but each time a new service is provisioned or a program funded, it should start out with a clear understanding of who the customers’ are they are expected to serve, what risks are the customers’ trying to avoid, and what outcomes those customers are expecting.

customer experience in government

For the People – Government as a Service Business (Part 1 of 2)

Can you recall your last great service experience? Maybe it was at a restaurant, a hotel, coffee shop, or a dry cleaner. Perhaps the clerk remembered your name or your preference. Or the service was particularly easy to use, available on your schedule at the push of a button. Or instead of being way over the top, maybe it just served its purpose simply without being overly complicated. In any case, the chances are your experience didn’t happen by accident. Rest assured that the service provider knows you have other alternatives and, in order to stay relevant, put considerable energy into understanding their customers’ needs and crafting their services to meet them. Furthermore, they are continually monitoring the customer experience and looking for ways to improve, lest be judged irrelevant and cast to the wayside. As customers, it may be transparent to us during the transaction but the service providers behind really great service experiences are working hard behind the scenes to bring it all together.

We believe that a similar model should apply to government services. Government is a service provider (we believe it is the world’s largest). Government has customers. These customers have a choice whether or not to transact with the government or seek out an alternative solution elsewhere. Customers may not exchange money at each transaction, but we do pay for government services. And yet, when people recall their best service experiences, examples in government hardly ever make the top of the list.

Service is a founding principle

The nature of government as a service business has its roots in the social contract that binds the governed and the governing and legitimizes government. While retracing the origins of the modern state beginning from the Magna Carta would be tedious, it is interesting to note that these concepts are hardwired into our democracy. We can look at the three men who together are the philosophical architects of modern Western government — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They provide the notion of a social contract between the governed and their government.

  1. In Hobbes’s Leviathan, society occurs when fundamentally selfish individuals come together and cede some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (elevating themselves from the nasty, brutish state of nature by, for example, John giving up his right to kill Chris if Chris does the same for John). A social contract exists when all individuals in a population beneath a sovereign authority cede some of their natural rights for the sake of protection.
  2. Locke’s conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes’s in a number of ways, importantly that it featured a separation of sovereign powers and the consent of the governed is a constant essential for legitimacy (Hobbes allowed for the occasional abuse of power by the sovereign). In the Second Treatise of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the social contract exists to provide civil society — a “neutral judge” that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. Locke’s social contract was particularly influential for the framers of the American Constitution.
  3. To Rousseau, the social contract derived its legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the direct rule by the people as a whole in law-making. In Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people’s representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but rather its expression; and enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will.

When we bring these schools of thought together, government is formed when citizens collectively agree to cede individual sovereignty to an individual or group (the sovereign) in exchange for the provision of a defined portfolio of services. In the United States, this portfolio of services is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution as, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

While it may seem a little wonky at first, there are some grounding principles here that should matter when we conceive of the services that government provides. Ok, so what? Part 2 of this article describes how a shift in thinking towards a customer-driven strategy could improve the performance of government services.

This is part 1 of a 2-part article.  If you enjoyed it, jump to Part 2 here.