Redesigning public and social services: Staple yourself to a citizen


Government leaders should adopt the perspective of a citizen passing through the end-to-end experience of a particular process and seek to optimize the complete journey.

This quote from a recent McKinsey survey is simultaneously obvious and revolutionary. Of course government leaders should optimize the process of serving citizens. But most government processes seem so cumbersome and plodding that just a little customer service would be welcome, never mind the optimization.

The survey shows that citizens rate their customer satisfaction with state services generally lower than with private-sector services. No one likes the DMV, but plenty of other governmental services rate lower:

McKinsey Survey 01

Interestingly, citizens who had direct experience with a state service generally rated it higher than citizens who hadn’t used the service recently but felt that they had an informed opinion.

This reminded me of a classic paper from Harvard Business Review called “Staple Yourself to An Order.” The article focuses on process design using the example of an order traveling through a corporation from point of sales. As the introduction to the article states:

Every time an order is handled, the customer is handled. Every time an order sits unattended, the customer sits unattended. Yet, to most senior executives, the details of the order management process are invisible. When managers take the time to track each step of the cycle, they come into contact with critical people like customer service representatives, production schedulers, order processors, and shipping clerks. Managers who “staple themselves to an order” will not only move horizontally across their own organization, charting gaps and building information bridges, but will also see the company from the customer’s perspective. There’s no better way to alter that perspective, improve interdepartmental relations, and—over the long haul—improve financial performance.

If following an order through corporate bureaucracy can build bridges, improve collaboration, and raise financial performance, imagine the impact of following a citizen through the process of applying for and receiving unemployment, securing a building permit, or even paying a traffic ticket. Citizens might have more faith in government and might object less to paying taxes. Government jobs might not seem so onerous, or maybe even cool, which could help the government compete against the private sector in recruiting workers.

“Stapling,” if you will, is a form of the design principle of designing with, not for, your audience. Usually, you’d apply this technique when you are redesigning an existing process. (You do have a process, whether or not you’ve consciously designed it.)

I have encountered signs that some in government are paying attention. Renewing my passport by mail was a remarkably easy and efficient transaction. The U.S. Digital Service appears to be applying solid design to online government services.

Have you experienced an exceptionally good public or government sector process? Let those involved know, and share a comment here.

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