Using Human-Centered Design: Tips from a State Government Doing the Work

By: Bridget Gibbons Straughan, Senior Government Innovation Manager

Increasingly, federal and state governments have made strides to incorporate the lived experience of the people they serve into their decisions and processes. Human-Centered Design (HCD) is an approach to inviting and integrating feedback from the people and communities who will experience a policy’s ultimate impact. For example, if someone is applying for several public benefits, they are often required to provide the same or similar information multiple times. While these processes reflect states’ requirements to adhere to complex regulations and resource constraints, it is a frustrating and time-consuming experience from the perspective of an applicant. 

With BDT’s support, the HHS Coalition team has analyzed the number of duplicate questions that are required across several applications.

Bridget Gibbons Straughan
Senior Government Innovation Manager

Many state agencies are increasingly leveraging HCD to improve their systems. Our work with the Washington State Health & Human Services Enterprise Coalition (HHS Coalition) on their State Action Plan to improve access to benefit programs has demonstrated the power of this discipline. With BDT’s support, the HHS Coalition team has analyzed the number of duplicate questions that are required across several applications – a necessary step to simplify the process. In a parallel effort, Civilla has designed a prototype of a streamlined, user-friendly, combined application that is being tested with clients and staff. 

Even when an agency is committed to incorporating HCD – like our Washington HHS Coalition partners are – additional structure is often needed to embed this way of thinking into government operations. To address this, the HHS Coalition incorporated an HCD Community of Practice (CoP) into their plan to improve benefits access.   

CoPs are groups organized around a shared interest. Participants improve their knowledge and skills through peer learning. They can be powerful forums for developing deep expertise and shifting culture within organizations.  

Participation in the HCD CoP, while encouraged by HHS Coalition leadership, is voluntary. Now in its second year, the CoP has over 100 human services employee members. It has structures for learning about and implementing HCD tactics, particularly to inform the HHS Coalition Integrated Eligibility & Enrollment (IE&E) Roadmap – Washington’s five-year, cross-agency plan to improve the tech systems and processes that are used to administer public benefits and services.  

As the team shifts from “establishing” to growing and deepening the impact of their CoP, I asked them to share what has worked well and what they have learned so far as their CoP is taking hold. Here is their advice for other government agencies seeking to incorporate HCD: 

  1. Identify champions at all levels of leadership. 

The importance of HCD was regularly discussed among the cross-agency oversight group leading the state’s benefits access improvements, which enabled meaningful and widespread CoP participation from their teams. Champions of this approach are also among the leaders of the HHS Coalition’s governance structure and the IE&E roadmap owners. This collection of leaders who believe in the HCD approach has helped the CoP take shape.  

  1. Invest in capacity-building for Community of Practice members. 

The HHS Coalition team identified that proficiency with HCD concepts and tactics would be an important foundation for the CoP. Using flexible funds available through their State Action Plan work with BDT, members participated in one or several trainings provided by the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, Civilla, Public Policy Lab, and IDEO U. Voluntary participation in the training opportunities helped identify who was most interested in HCD and established a shared language among them. Those who have gone through training are now equipped to support new members in their learning, and their intentional approach to testing different training formats helps the team understand the best options for future training needs.  

To support even deeper HCD knowledge, the HHS Coalition and University of Washington Evans School have entered a partnership through which eligible HHS Coalition employees can complete a graduate certificate program, “Leading Public Innovation,” at a discounted rate.  

  1. Use the Community of Practice as a place to experiment with and model different forms of engagement. 

The CoP participants try to practice HCD skills in how they organize themselves – for example, the leaders regularly solicit participant feedback to inform agendas and training priorities. They have also found that a sense of camaraderie and friendly competition across participants from different agencies helps to get people excited about the CoP. And they’ve found that the simple act of naming the group “HCD CoP” – having an entity that is known and can be referred to – helps people with interest or questions know where to go to engage. 

  1. Keep sight of the big picture goal: shifting culture. 

Many human services employees work in government precisely because they are dedicated to making benefits systems more equitable and inclusive, and the HCD CoP aims to embed this thinking even more firmly within the organizational culture. To this end, the HCD CoP has resolved that they don’t need to have “perfect” structures in place before trying something – both in the work of building up the CoP and in bringing HCD to their daily tasks in government. They aim to strike a balance between the importance of practicing HCD and an awareness that culture change takes time. 

We’re grateful to our Washington partners for their dedication and innovation in their public benefits systems. We look forward to seeing how they implement more HCD-informed initiatives and share their learnings along the way.