13 Feb 2023
6 min read
Human-Centred Design (HCD) in Government
Nomat Director Marli Gray has had the opportunity to collaborate with different Victorian Government departments and organisations in supporting HCD projects. In this piece she documents some insights related to the notible digital transformation in the government sector.
My UX career chose me randomly in 2009. I had been working as a Child Protection Practitioner with the Victorian Government for almost 10 years, when I found myself jumping at the opportunity to be seconded to support a new project. I had been tasked with solving the ‘administrative complications’ caused by a new software named the Client Relationship Information System (CRIS). The platform had been rolled out several years earlier, and appeared to be worryingly inadequate. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to start my journey into Human-Centred Design (HCD).
I knew I had to help
I was motivated to make this pivot due to my first-hand experience of this system and its diabolical implementation. My new mission was to support Child Protection Practitioners on the ground with the interface, which required a multi-pronged approach. The process involved listening to their concerns, and sending through tickets to IT for their resolution, while also training the users to navigate screens on the spot. Most concerningly, the interface was so fundamentally unusable, that it was potentially placing children’s lives at risk.
In a weird, almost roundabout way, I was trying to support an improved user experience. The CRIS system itself was so woefully not fit for purpose, that the Victorian Ombudsman published a report in 2009 titled ‘Own Motion Investigation into the Department of Human Services Child Protection Program.’
This report contained the following alarming assessment:
The department commenced rolling out the Client Relationship Information System (CRIS), a replacement information technology platform for the child protection program, in the Southern Metropolitan Region in 2005. The projected cost to implement CRIS across divisions of the department was $29 million, however, the actual cost to date is $95 million and further expenditure is anticipated.
The implementation of CRIS was halted after its introduction into the first three regions of the state because it did not meet the needs of the child protection program and there were flaws in the functionality of the system. The implementation was interrupted for 10 months with the roll out being completed in 2007.
The evidence provided by senior departmental staff is that the introduction of CRIS has not only failed to provide the child protection system with a more effective tool than its predecessor, it has also impaired the department’s efficiency without providing adequate functionality.
What I saw in the field
I gave myself a year in the CRIS team, providing hands-on support. During this period I noticed that user experience was barely considered in the development of the platform, and the poor user experience had a significant impact on the child protection workers who had to use the system. With this knowledge front of mind, I was able to launch into user research and HCD the following year. This time, however, I decided to do things a little differently. Instead of helping users by working for the government internally, I joined the team at Nomat.
Over the past nine years at Nomat, I have had the great privilege of continuing to work with various Victorian Government departments and organisations to support HCD projects. These engagements have varied from initially undertaking user research, and providing recommendations to improve current systems and processes, to embedding HCD thinking into departments in the midst of digital transformations through training and mentoring. More recently, this has extended to helping departments prioritise the user first when considering the roll out of new systems and processes. For these larger projects, we have delivered Service Blueprints and Future State Journey Maps, which allowed for visual representations of the HCD ethos.
Being a strategic change-maker for HCD
Over these years, I have certainly noticed a positive transformation within the government. From the disastrous roll out the CRIS system in 2005, it is quite remarkable to see embedded HCD thinking within teams across government today.
Here are some key learnings I’ve distilled during this time:
It is going to be a journey. Design thinking is relatively new to government, and digital transformation takes time. Shifting the focus to HCD thinking is going to take a significant cultural shift within an organisation. Be patient, but be persistent. If you can show the value of HCD, you will eventually shift perceptions and allegiances to prioritise design thinking first.
Stakeholder engagement is key. It is our job as HCD designers to empathise with all our users and our government stakeholders alike. Don’t push HDC onto people, but instead, try to understand their world and try to make yourself useful to them. Ask yourself questions to determine how HDC could make this person’s job easier, more efficient, more enjoyable? And, by extension, how can I make myself useful?
Respect the holders of internal knowledge. Government is a unique and interesting beast and government staff are the experts in their own domain. As HCD professionals, we need to be pragmatic about how these organisations have been run historically and work within the boundaries and constraints it provides. Listen to their experiences, try to understand their needs, and leverage their domain expertise wherever you can.
Build long-term relationships. Transformation takes time, so hang in there. Build meaningful relationships with the teams and organisations you are supporting. You will become more useful as you gain invaluable knowledge about their area of the organisation. Most crucially, you will build trust in the HCD process.
Show, don’t tell. Convince stakeholders that there is value in HCD thinking by showing the improvements and the gains that can be made. Do research with rigour, and involve your stakeholders in the process. Encourage them to view live research sessions, and hold collaborative workshops to analyse and synthesise the insights.
Make practical and useful recommendations for improvements. By taking every opportunity to impart your HCD knowledge, you will see an organisation’s internal thinking change.
Walk the talk. HCD is more than just ticking a box, and it’s not as simple as having a UX designer on a team. HCD can only deliver value to projects with rigorous user research, extensive stakeholder engagement, thoughtful co-design, iterative prototyping and strategic usability testing. As a team or project matures, HCD value can be injected via journey maps, blueprinting or future-state thinking.
Government departments are increasingly focused on HCD methods, with both internal teams and external specialists championing user-centric thinking. Every single one of us is a ‘government user’, which means we are intrinsically motivated to see these systems improved. The opportunities to support real and tangible change make government projects more critical than ever.
Click here to discover more about Nomat and how we collaborate with the government on HCD projects.
Founder and Chief Happiness Officer
Marli is an experienced manager who oversees the day to day operations at Nomat including resource and project management. Marli is skilled in interviewing and has over 10 years experience working in the Victorian Government. Marli is adept at navigating complex stakeholder relationships and brings a pragmatic lens to every project.
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