Making A Big Difference, From The Back Office

Dave Conabree

Dave Conabree , Canada Revenue Agency

Many of us joined the public service because we wanted to make a difference. I have worked with countless people who are knock-your-socks-off driven to do just that, in every job type and level across the country.

Service agents, policy wonks, analysts, first responders, diplomats, advisors, case managers, and countless others, all busily making the Canadian public service one of the very best in the world.

That said, they aren’t always busy writing policy, serving clients, and the like. Like elsewhere, they find themselves in the frustrating act of trudging through internal administration that was clearly not designed with the end user’s experience as a priority. Booking travel, hiring someone, getting specific software, filling in corporate templates and forms, are just a few examples. Far too often, the processes surrounding these kinds of things are unnecessarily slow, complicated and downright painful.

It’s the same almost everywhere you go because in the long run battle between compliance & service, compliance will usually be safer & easier for administrative functions. As such, there is a natural tendency to layer on more process and approvals over time. Even when the people in those functions fight to make things simpler and easier for clients (and that happens a lot more than you might think), they don’t always find themselves with the support they need to make it happen at the broad scale. Fixing the imbalance requires a sustained effort to design from a client’s point of view, but this is exactly where we need to go.

Every minute that someone has to spend carrying out administrative steps is a minute they can’t spend on their core reason for being there. Multiply that out by hundreds of thousands of public servants and you get a sense of why this is so important.

Just like the excellent work being done to create better government service experiences for our citizens, there are many highly committed people putting the same client-centric perspective to the often lower profile HR, IT, Finance, Procurement, Accommodations, and other internal services. I work with a lot of them.

That means seeing our internal processes through the eyes of the public servants who use them and keeping that perspective as a key measure of success when we design an interaction. If almost everyone hates dealing with a process, it is not the fault of the user for not learning it well enough. It is a design problem, and we need to fix it.

And, just as importantly, it’s a movement away from merely refining what we do today, to actively exploring what a client-centric process might look like if the existing one didn’t exist at all.

Doing this is much easier said than done; these systems are amazingly complex and have their own momentum. For every person pushing to change the status quo at every level, there are no shortage of others who are either too busy to make it a priority, or who just prefer to stick with what they know. Real change is hard, and well-intentioned promises are easy.

To help overcome these barriers, I’ve set out some key internal services design principles for consideration by both practitioners and clients alike. They aren’t exhaustive, and they build on the work of many, but I find them helpful in providing clear support for client-centric outcomes.

Start with the assumption that the user is overly busy, tired, and looking for simplicity. (In short: Empathy first!)

It is 5:30pm and a manager’s spouse is calling to ask when she will be home, she has a bunch of deadlines due this week, a key player is unexpectedly away, and now she needs to staff a job. This person is probably not reading a 21-page set of detailed step-by-step instructions….no matter how pretty you make them.

Designing FOR the clients means designing WITH the client. There is no substitute.

No matter how good the intentions are, a process designed without the end user is a process that won’t likely line up to reality. This is because the assumption that we really understand the user’s problem/perspective, is usually false.

Try things out with the people on the ground, and understand the results, before you scale up.

This is tied to the point about designing with the client but it goes a step further. Even if you have client reps in the room when you build it, it is still not ready for prime time until other people….people who are on the ground but were not involved in your project… have tried it out. Sometimes the users you get don’t cover the real range of users you have, or maybe they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and lost perspective. Either way…. getting the feedback from those other users and integrating it into your thinking, before you implement, is a mandatory step in getting it right.

Eliminating unnecessary steps is goal #1. Making the rest better for the client, is goal #2

There is a great Peter Drucker quote you have probably heard before but it really sums it up: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. If we can completely remove a friction point or a handoff between people, it often makes a much bigger difference than making it into something technologically slick.

Endless options & detailed instructions are often paralyzing. Make choices clear and simple.

Some see having a dozen or so different ways to do something as a beneficial flexibility, and it is to those who understand them all. For many people though, it’s like standing at the mega-grocery store trying to figure out which of the 32 kinds of flour is the one your spouse probably meant when you were asked to pick it up on the way home. The fancy term for this is Choice Paralysis and it is works directly against getting things done right or quickly.

Aim to build user processes based on what they will ACTUALLY do, rather than what they SHOULD do.

This is a direct reference to human nature; asking users what someone, particularly someone as described in the first principle, is likely to do when faced with a step or a choice, and plan accordingly. Hint: It’s probably the easiest thing.

Don’t think about a process in months because it happens to take months now. Come at it fresh.

Often when I talk to people about making a process more user friendly, they come at it from a tinkering perspective, shaving a few things here and there for incremental improvement. Sometimes this is fine, but where radically different results are needed, shortening one form in a 16 step process is unlikely to achieve it.

Challenge everything. Sometimes a “rule” is really just a custom and sometimes, rules can be changed.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone told me that something was part of legislation/policy when in fact, it was just something that was always done. Yes, there are absolute rules for good reasons and we need them. That said, if we don’t constantly challenge these assumptions, it makes it much more difficult to be creative and adapt to change.

We absolutely can change the system for the better, and it feels awesome.

Much of the length, complexity and burden associated with the administrative processes that thousands of public servants use every day ISN’T written in stone.

Not everyone wakes up in the morning with a burning desire to make internal services better for our clients and be willing to lock arms with others to push through the resistance to getting there — but that is exactly the mindset we need to have a positive impact on thousands of people. The kinds of things people look back on with pride and say, “yeah…I was part of that”.

There are many of these people in our ranks, and they deserve all the support we can give them. After all, internal administration may never be the hot file, but it is one amazingly effective way, to make a big difference.

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