Society problems

Designing digital solutions to drive positive change in society

Digital solutions can enable government organizations to reach more people, provide a better experience for service users and make the organization more efficient

Technology has become an integral part of people’s daily lives, even more so now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This offers immense opportunities to change social landscapes and help people overcome barriers – but only if the technology is designed to be inclusive. Digital solutions can enable government organizations to reach more people, provide a better experience for service users and make the organization more efficient.

One of the most important elements is that it allows people to use a government service when and where they choose rather than being tied to government working hours and locations. This contributes to social inclusion by overcoming mobility and speech issues (eg disabilities, access to transport, different languages, etc.). Plus, it helps people who can’t afford time off from work or who have to take care of children or other relatives during the day.

Large-scale technology can be difficult to implement fairly, efficiently and effectively

One of the biggest challenges governments face in this area is the breadth of users. Unlike the private sector, which can design its technology for most people, public sector organizations must consider all users, including those who cannot afford the latest technologies. Additionally, engaging with a wide range of users can quickly create an ever-growing list of issues and pain points that need to be addressed.

Government organizations can quickly become overwhelmed with the challenges of implementing digital solutions for positive change, so here are some keys to success:

1. Understand the landscape

With the massive number of websites, mobile apps, and so many other digital solutions, it’s important to understand the external landscape in which technology is embedded. The interconnected nature of society, both online and offline, means people are constantly moving between different ecosystems throughout the day. These ecosystems form the basis for which people are empowered or disempowered and therefore must be understood in the design of solutions. For example, creating a new mobile app to identify available parking spaces can make parking easier and reduce traffic congestion, but it could also create more problems if other apps are already in use in surrounding areas.

Understanding users is extremely important when using digital technology to deliver public services so that people are not left out. Often users are categorized by their demographics (e.g. age, race, gender, etc.), but this doesn’t give a true picture of who will be using the service. There will always be barriers that prevent different people from accessing services in any ecosystem. Depending on the service, there can be many barriers, including disabilities, digital literacy, and access to technology. Rather than just looking at demographics, user research should be conducted to identify different types of users based on their underlying circumstances.

Additionally, government organizations need to understand the technological landscape involved in similar services that might be used by their users. For example, a local government adding an app to pay for parking should examine surrounding locations to see if other apps are already in use. It will also help the organization to understand the feasibility of its ambitions as well as gain knowledge about important requirements that it needs to consider when commissioning work or discussing with technology vendors. Understanding the technology landscape also helps in understanding market trends, for example, whether a vendor is becoming the go-to vendor.

2. Clarify the issues

Working to bring about positive change in society is always a challenge due to the myriad of issues that arise when you begin to explore issues. Teams can quickly become overwhelmed with all the “pain points” when speaking with a wide range of people. However, this is usually a case where multiple people speak differently about the same issue due to their different points of view. Like most medical illnesses, a given problem will cause multiple symptoms, and when there are multiple problems, there will be aggravating symptoms that can make diagnosing the problems more difficult. Large-scale transformations can address twenty, fifty, or even more problems, which can then come in the form of several hundred pain points.

Obviously, it is a huge task to solve hundreds or even thousands of pain points simultaneously, so it is important to systematically study problems before developing solutions. By digging a little deeper into the details of each pain point, the underlying issues or root causes can be identified. Just as most illnesses can be diagnosed quickly with the right tests, a forensic investigation is not necessary to identify the real problem in most cases. If the landscape is understood, it means that diagnosing the problem will be easier because hypotheses can be developed and tested based on knowledge of how that user interacts with other parts of the ecosystem.

While this may seem like adding extra time to the project, it ends up being more effective and efficient because it reduces the complexity of the situation and ensures that the results improve people’s lives rather than just easing pain. Additionally, many of the challenges people face with government services are caused by organizational structures and processes. Clarifying issues helps to better understand which issues are due to poor technology user experience and which have underlying challenges unrelated to the technology. This allows the organization to identify opportunities where technology can drive positive change for users and where it can be used to overcome organizational silos and inefficient processes in service delivery.

3. Solve problems iteratively

Agile methods are the standard way to develop digital technology, but these methods alone can focus attention on the users of technology rather than the problems people face across the social spectrum. When designing digital solutions intended to bring about positive changes in society, the focus must first be on the underlying problems, with technology being a means to implement the identified solutions. Agile methods should still be used when developing technology, but the product backlog should be fed from an understanding of what is needed to solve problems rather than directly from what users want. This can be done by using Design Thinking methodologies to explore problem and solution spaces, then using the results of these methods to feed into the technical product backlog. Additionally, a transformation roadmap can be developed to show the order of problem exploration and resolution, which then feeds into the technical product roadmap.

Each issue will take time to explore properly, so prioritization is essential to ensure momentum can be maintained. Resolving significant issues will generally have greater benefits for users and will have a greater impact on the technical solution. However, it also takes more time to explore the problem and develop the appropriate solution, which can cause impatience among stakeholders. At the same time, exploring smaller issues first can help get technical development off the ground and make it easier to implement the technology. In this case, however, the benefits will be less, which may cause stakeholders to lose interest in the project at an early stage. To counter these challenges, the transformation roadmap can be developed where small, medium and large solutions overlap so that stakeholders see a steady cadence of positive change taking place.

4. Secure adequate funding

Funding is essential to any government project. However, transformation projects often lack the funding or resources to produce the desired results. This can be caused by budget limitations, a lack of understanding of resource requirements, or unforeseen delays, among others. Often, projects start with a very tight budget, either because the business case did not ask for enough, or because the amount requested was reduced by the decision makers.

During iterative problem solving, it is very important to keep this in mind when identifying phases or work packages. The size and magnitude of the change will be important to obtaining funding. Too small a scope and it will likely have to fit into an existing budget, while too large a scope risks being squeezed. Additionally, when dividing a large transformation project into multiple phases, each phase will set expectations and adjust ambitions for subsequent phases. If a phase is late, over budget or not delivering the expected results, it will reduce the ambition of future phases. To avoid this, the organization must ensure that each phase has the appropriate funding. It sounds obvious, but it can be very difficult in a world where budgets are limited.

This article was written by Tim Kleinschmidt, who leads service design practices for Cadence Innova.

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