5 x 5 - Service Design In Government, Veronica X. Vela

Interview with Veronica X. Vela, Human Innovation Fellow & Service Design Strategist in Healthcare at U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

by Aza Dawood

“… as designers, we have to look for the good. Because there is always good."

What components of service design are most interesting and relevant when working with government and public institutions? 

One of the most interesting parts of working in the public sector is illuminating what it’s like for a citizen to access services. While the experiences of citizens may seem obvious, it can be hard to take action on what is already known due to multiple views and sources describing the problem.  In our work, we conduct design research and create journey maps to synthesize various perspectives and present the information is a way that is digestible and actionable for those working to improve services. This is essential. 

Has the relevance / acceptance of service design changed in government over the last 2-3 years within the US?

Yes! 2-3 years ago it was a notional idea in many agencies. Now you see organizations applying service design to improve service delivery.  We have trained and work with counterparts in many agencies across the federal government, including the VA, FDA, etc.  The work is exciting, and we have several great leaders paving the way for us.      

Do you think there are any specific aspects that make it more difficult for government institutions to adopt a human centered perspective?

It takes a sense of openness and a willingness to acknowledge where one can do better. That means leaders need to be willing to ask their customers the hard questions and welcome the response. They also need to be willing to share the responses. But also, as designers, we have to look for the good. Because there is always good. Understanding the bright spots can help us identify what is working well and how we can spread it across all the facilities where we are delivering services.  

Given that government institutions can be very large and complex, are there specific business units/parts of the organization that you find typically embrace service design first?

That’s a tough question.  Organizations that are used to qualitative research informing practice are great places to start. For example, we are working with Women’s Health Services (WHS) at VA to understand how women experience care. For the last two decades, WHS has intentionally leveraged research to inform healthcare service delivery for women Veterans. They get it.  It’s great to work with them because they understand qualitative research and participatory design.  But, the leader matters. We’ve been lucky to find leaders who are open to new methods and embrace the unknown.  

How would you like to see the practice of service design evolve in the public sector?

I’d love to see co-creation with customers become more prevalent. We tend to enjoy the design research phase and once we understand the needs, we build prototypes and mock-ups. We look at what is feasible and move forward from there. We do conduct testing along the way which helps us course correct. However, as we become more tightly linked in the co-creation process with customers, they will push us further, and we will get closer to the final design in the initial concept.  

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