Technology has redefined federal government operations, leading to heightened expectations from both employees and the public. Meeting these expectations is by no means a small feat, as it requires agencies to be observant, proactive and innovative in their approach. It brings in the need to adopt new ways of thinking in order to come up with creative yet feasible solutions. At the same time, it requires the government to have an open outlook toward embracing innovation as a culture.

Design thinking is one of the most effective ways to improve efficiency and drive innovation. Federal agencies are beginning to use design thinking to creatively address mission objectives and improve processes.

What is Design Thinking?

According to Gartner, "Design thinking is a multidisciplinary process that builds solutions for complex, intractable problems in a technically feasible, commercially sustainable and emotionally meaningful way."

Design thinking as an approach puts the focus on people — their likes, dislikes, desires and experience — for designing new services and products. It encourages a free flow of ideas within a team to build and test prototypes by setting a high tolerance for failure. The approach is more holistic, as it considers both human and technological aspects to cater to mission-critical needs. Due to its innovative and agile problem-solving technique, design thinking inspires teams to collaborate and contribute towards driving mission goals.

How Can Design Thinking Help Agencies?

Whether it is problem solving, streamlining a process or increasing the adoption rate of a new service, design thinking calls for agencies to be empathetic towards people's needs while being open to continuous learning and a willingness to fail — fast. A fail-fast model enables agencies to detect errors during the course of finding a solution, in which they learn from the possible mistakes and then proceed to develop a more suitable solution that is likely to add value to the user.

Consider an example of a federal agency whose legacy inspection application was affecting the productivity of its inspectors. By leveraging an agile approach, the agency built a mobile inspection solution to streamline and automate the inspection process. The methodology involved multiple iterations based on observations and findings from inspector actions. Here is a step-by-step synopsis of this methodology:

  • class="MsoNormal">Problem presentation: Identifying the problems faced by inspectors.
  • class="MsoNormal">Empathize with users: Understanding the needs and challenges of inspectors.
  • class="MsoNormal">Define the problem: Redefining the problem based on input from inspectors.
  • class="MsoNormal">Team collaboration: Brainstorming and discussing multiple solutions.
  • class="MsoNormal">Prototype creation: Determining and building viable design solutions.
  • class="MsoNormal">Testing with constituents: Releasing the prototype and testing it with inspectors.
  • class="MsoNormal">Collection of feedback: Incorporating feedback from pilot testing and making required changes.

The insights drawn from each step helped the agency to design a secure platform in the form of a mobile inspection tool, optimized for tablets with a smartphone companion app for enhanced mobility. Packed with features like rich media capture with video, speech-to-text and photographs, the mobile inspection tool dramatically reduces manual labor and speeds up the on-site inspection process. It delivers significant efficiencies by improving processes, increasing productivity and enhancing the visibility of information. Additionally, its integration with legacy systems helps leverage existing investments,

therefore justifying the innovation, which is based on a tightly defined test and learn cycle.

Plan of Action for Agencies

The federal government's ability to effectively and efficiently provide online services depends on how well it incorporates tools of technology for optimal service delivery. Agencies must innovate and reinvent their mode of operation in the following manner:

  • Identify and contact an organization that leverages a design thinking approach to solve problems by sharing a collaborative, participatory and responsive relationship with clients.
  • Address constraints regarding existing legacy systems by embracing a fail-fast model.
  • Maximize learning and minimize risks through rapid prototyping.
  • Discover and develop solutions that resonate with the needs of end users and drive better and quicker ROI.

By implementing the steps outlined above, agencies will be able to execute a design thinking approach and, as a result, fully embrace innovative operations.

Michael T. McHugh serves as president of DMI's Digital Services. He joined DMI in 2009 as president of the Defense Group, where he led transformation efforts within the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense. McHugh entered federal civil service in 1985 as interim deputy branch chief, Space Station Freedom Program Office, NASA, where he was responsible for defining telecommunication services and operations of the information systems for the Level II Space Station. 

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