The Three Keys to Providing More Equitable Government Services
The path forward requires a fundamental shift in how federal programs are designed and implemented.
The federal government is striving to address longstanding barriers to equity and access in the programs and services it delivers, as it should. Unlike private companies, which can choose customers to target, government has a mandate to serve everyone, and it should be the leader in designing and delivering equitable services. Though government has established a vision for equitable government services, it’s still catching up with reality for many of its customers. Three critical steps can help agencies build a path to more equitable government services.
Federal customer experience enhancements have streamlined many government services and are improving access. Yet those who have the greatest need for help often still face the biggest obstacles. These may be individuals with limited internet access, no credit history or language barriers—challenges that lead to inequities across socioeconomic, racial and ethnic lines. Notable examples include disparities in access to coronavirus vaccines, unequal opportunity to obtain federal loans for small businesses in Black, Hispanic and other communities, and less financial support for predominantly Black communities in the wake of natural disasters.
This is not a new issue—organizations and leaders have long advocated for improving government assistance to underserved communities. But the Biden administration’s executive order on improving racial equity, issued in January, sets a new bar, offering a much-needed path forward to assess and tackle equity and access challenges.
Achieving equity in and access to government services requires a fundamental shift in how federal programs and policies are designed and implemented, and how services and products are provided. Equity and access must be incorporated into all program elements from the start.
To achieve this vision, some agencies are increasingly adopting human-centered design practices to build services around the needs of customers, rather than agencies’ organizational structures or programs. This is a much-needed step to improve customer experience. Yet agencies too often design services around their most common users, who often will not experience the barriers faced by underserved communities. By designing for the average, agencies miss the margins—and risk falling short of their public service mission.
To improve equity and access, government leaders need to understand the full spectrum of potential customers for their services, including people who most need assistance but may not currently be receiving it. This means gaining insight into the experiences of, for example, those eligible customers who are the least likely to access a service. Maybe these individuals fail to apply, or their applications are disproportionately rejected, or the program is not effective at meeting their needs.
To serve all eligible people, agencies have to change how 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 sense of which groups or demographics have the hardest time accessing their agency’s services, and a plan to include these groups in customer research and stakeholder engagement efforts. It may be that the people the agency needs to hear from most are the least likely to participate in a customer survey or listening session, perhaps because of issues such as past discrimination that makes them less likely to trust government. Special efforts may be needed to get them involved. Agencies could, for instance, partner with community-based 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 providing input.
Use data more effectively. Government leaders have embraced the need for better data to understand equity issues, recognizing that without accurate information, there’s no way to see if there are disparities in who benefits from government programs. While agencies may have been reluctant to collect or apply demographic data due to privacy concerns, obtaining and using data can improve outcomes. Agencies can use existing data sources, including data on government spending from USAspending.gov and census information.
Demographic and other relevant data about who accesses services—and the broader eligible population--will likely reveal equity challenges. Leaders need to use that data and evidence to make smart decisions to address those challenges.
For example, requiring onerous eligibility documentation to prevent fraud sometimes leads to inequities in who gets 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 running data-driven pilot programs using innovative approaches and commercially proven technologies that can streamline program access while still minimizing fraud. One such approach involves sharing data across agencies, so one agency’s stored information about an individual can be used to verify that person’s eligibility for another government program.
Build organizational capacity. The stakes for improving equity are too high to be an “other duty as assigned.” Many agencies lack staff capacity and expertise to fully engage stakeholders using modern techniques and tools—especially people from underserved communities who may be hardest to reach. For example, some organizations provide language services using free tools, which can result in inaccurate translations. Investing in building knowledge and expertise, dedicating resources, and ensuring that the team designing services is itself diverse, are essential for getting this work done right.
Leaders have the power to reduce barriers and make services fairer and more equitable for all. It’s important they start now and show the country how it’s done.
Loren DeJonge Schulman isvice president for research and analysis at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Kathy Conrad is the 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 great experiences and deliver mission outcomes.