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Human-centered design can transform state agencies and put people first

State agencies have the opportunity and the funding to make lasting change with human-centered design.

In brief

  • State agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to revamp processes, remove barriers and transform how they serve people using human-centered design.
  • For change to be effective, listen to users and employees when defining the problems and considering solutions.
  • Start the transformation process with a vision and strategy checkup.

As the Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, one of my strategic goals was revolutionizing the experience of accessing and using services for people. And while we came a long way in the years I served the state, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed serious gaps in service delivery and in the meaningful data needed to properly identify and fill those gaps.

For example, we knew that we had to pivot to online services during the pandemic, but we still needed to provide services for those without internet access. What we did not know was how many people would still need in-person services, so we could appropriately staff our offices. We knew that we had to offer online applications for our childcare subsidy recipients, but we did not know the volume to expect so that we could effectively manage the change for our employees. We were simply unable, while managing through a pandemic, to take a breath and determine if our short-term services aligned with our long-term goals. We were operating in reactionary mode — strategic planning had to wait.

It’s cliché, but it bears repeating: The world around us has changed dramatically; are the strategies for change that were established years ago still relevant? Now is the perfect time for state agencies to re-evaluate their transformational strategies and commit or recommit to human-centered design.

Use human-centered design to prioritize people’s experience

Human-centered design is an approach to addressing problems in services and processes that prioritizes the experience of the people who use it. For state agencies, this means designing processes to make resources easily accessible for all users and removing barriers. For instance, services should be accessible in many different ways so that users can interface with the agency the way they want to — not the way we think they should. And while regulations add layers of requirements to processes, there are ways to shield the user from these complexities.

The same philosophy is true for state agency employees — agencies must remove the barriers that prevent efficiency. That requires soliciting and incorporating the experience of the people who use the processes every day. Otherwise, what you think creates efficiency may only lead to greater frustration.

One day, after hearing dissatisfaction from my team about the application process, I sat with an employee and learned that she had to take 17 different steps to complete just one section of the application. Without an environment where she felt comfortable sharing her frustration and her perspective on how to improve the process, we would have never known about this roadblock and been able to make meaningful change.

This moment can be an inflection point for state agencies to implement better, more transformative ways to serve their constituents. Flush with federal funding, and now with a full grasp of managing through the pandemic, agencies are equipped to address the future head-on. To accomplish this, they must take the time to fully understand the problems they experience consider human centric solutions before taking steps to change them.

Perform a vision and strategy checkup for your state agency

A human-centered transformation starts with a health check of the agency vision. Agencies need to ask themselves:

  • Has the vision of the agency changed, or does it need to change?

Needs and expectations were changing rapidly even before the pandemic exposed gaps in service delivery. Do the vision and mission of the agency still reflect what the people who use it need and want?

To be clear, your services haven’t changed, but the way you deliver these government services certainly has. One of my first tasks as Commissioner was to ask the team if our vision was still relevant. After much discussion, we realized that as an agency, we had already accomplished the stated vision and it was time to think bigger — to push ourselves into even higher performance.

  • What is the current state and the desired future state of the agency?

Agencies must ask themselves: Do we really know our current state? We are often moving so quickly that it seems impossible to reflect on the status of operations that seem to be working. But without understanding the current state, agencies cannot dream of a future state of seamless service delivery.

It’s critical to identify what the agency wants to be and how it wants to serve people before embarking on a transformation. The goal may be total modernization of systems or it may be incremental change of policies. No matter which way agencies are considering change, human-centered design should be at the top of the list of must-haves.

  • Does the agency workforce have the skills and engagement to activate the vision?

To be successful, the agency workforce needs to be engaged and able to achieve the vision and future state. In the era of the Great Resignation, how do agencies continue to attract, upskill and retain the people they need? Are you checking on the emotional and mental health of employees? And how can you use human-centered design to help eliminate redundancies and make work less frustrating for agency employees?


Government transformation can seem daunting and sometimes like a moving goalpost. By understanding the needs of those we serve and those who serve alongside us, change suddenly seems less monumental and more essential. With an analysis of the current state of operations and an updated vision that keeps people at the center, the state agency will have the foundation of an effective strategy that moves it toward its long-term goals.

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