How To Move Toward Citizen-Centered Design in Government

Renée Mak

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In my first blog post of this series, I introduced the concept of human-centered design and the advantages of utilizing this approach to create more impactful government-citizen relations. I also identified some of the unique and common challenges that government bodies face that can significantly impact successful implementation.

In this post, I share some of the initial steps you can take to begin the internal culture change necessary to implement a citizen-centred design approach.

As with all large and daunting projects, we must start somewhere! Although it’s usually not possible to implement wholly citizen-centric design in government as quickly as in other industries, taking these initial steps will be inspiring and help move your organization in the right direction.

1) Make it Manageable

At first it can be overwhelming to think about usability across all departments at the same time, especially in light of the layers of challenges involved. To overcome our concerns about the scale of the challenge ahead of us, we can take a ‘systems design’ approach. This involves breaking things down into ‘nodes’ and the connections between them in order to build our understanding from the bottom-up instead of the top-down.

What does this mean in the government context? Identify your nodes (or, in your case, departments), which have the highest volume and/or variety of touch-points with citizens. These front-line departments will interact with citizens on a near daily basis and these are where even small changes will have the largest impacts. This is where you should focus your initial efforts. In addition, the positive changes in these front-line departments will support the larger organizational cultural shift and make the process of large-scale change easier to manage.

To better contextualize this, imagine you are a citizen who speaks very little English living in a predominantly English-speaking city and you needed to make an emergency call. What would happen if the emergency responder who answered only spoke English? If your city has a multicultural and multilingual demographic, then government services should account for this. The impact it would have on your non English-speaking citizens are considerable; by providing services in multiple languages you ensure that your citizens are engaged and feel included, or in our example with the emergency responder, get the help that they need. While this is a fairly straightforward example, there are so many ways that government and citizens interact with one another that could be improved by applying this type of approach.

Once you have identified the separate systems with which citizens engage, you can analyze whether or not there is room for improvement in the services being provided. Now the task of implementing citizen-centric services is less daunting - you understand that you can approach it in manageable chunks, rather than changing everything at once.

2) Build Empathy

Building empathy with citizens is one of the cornerstones of moving towards a citizen-centric government model as it sits at the root of the cultural shift. Any customer/client relationship can become a little tense or confused where the two parties have different perspectives and frames of personal or organizational reference. This could be due to a lack of understanding of the day-to-day life and processes of both citizens and civil servants. It’s easy for this misunderstanding to happen when there are so many layers of complexity and, while we always hope for two-way empathy of citizens towards government and vice versa, it is important for government (as citizen-elected representatives who hold political power) to take the first step.

There are two practices that we use in citizen-centered design thinking that are effective in building empathy. I encourage you to carry out these exercises with your team -- you may learn something new!

Personas Exercise

Personas are representations of your target audiences, backed by research, that we employ in the usability field. We give our personas names, characteristic traits, jobs, skills, etc. They are meant to humanize and contextualize who we are designing for, as well as act as our sanity check during various steps of a project. While it’s easy to get lost in details and to overly complicate things, it should really come down to: what does Jane Smith need? Is our solution to a challenge one that is expected and easy for Jane to adopt?

Like the systems design approach described above, when building personas it’s important to approach this task holistically - but also to segment your target audience into nodes. Every government body is going to engage with your standard user groups - senior citizens, children and youth, and personas reflecting various income levels. Yet, different government bodies will also have additional groups that they engage with depending on if they operate at the federal, state/provincial level, or municipal level. The demographics and economics of countries, provinces and cities vary and this all impacts the different groups that government departments and teams will engage with.

Approach building your personas at a holistic but also at a departmental level. It’s not enough to say “we will build a usable citizen-oriented government for seniors, youth, families, etc” because as you dig deeper, you will realize there are very specific types of user groups that your different departments engage with. For example, your urban planning department will work with these groups, but they will also engage frequently with developers, engineers, realtors, homeowners, cultural organizations, and others.

If you want to learn more about building personas, there are lots of resources out there. I like this one from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Journey Mapping Exercise

After building your personas, the next step to building empathy is journey mapping. At its core, the objective of journey mapping is to understand the day to day interactions that a citizen has with your systems and to focus on the perspective of a citizen.

Instead of trying to think of all the different engagement points between a department and a citizen, think about it from a citizen’s perspective with their discrete needs. For example, as a government department, you may need to provide recycling services for your area. There is a lot of internal organization that needs to go into providing this service, but from a citizen standpoint, all they need to know is: when are my recycling and garbage days? What can I recycle? Is there is a limit on how much trash can be picked up? And how do I manage instances where I need to exceed this limit?

Through journey-mapping exercises, you can map out how your citizens (based on the different personas you’ve already developed) currently meet these needs and then identify the steps within this process that are likely frustrating to them. We call these ‘pain points’ and they are an avenue for you to understand your citizens better and to highlight where there are opportunities for innovation and improvement.

What's Next

So there you have it. Taking the approach of a departmental and even intra-departmental view to implementing a citizen-centered government model, we make the task a lot less daunting. It’s possible to deliver positive impact and build momentum for organization-wide cultural change from the bottom up. You can now start with two activities that can be used to help your team think through government-citizen interactions.

In the next blog post, I’ll take you through running a usability and citizen-centered design thinking workshop with your team.

Bonus: Resources

Interested in exploring more on this topic? You may find these resources useful:

Renée Mak


Renée Mak is digital product designer with a background in urban planning and community engagement. Things that matter to her? The human experience, creativity, coffee, cats, circus and bicycles.