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Using Human-Centered Design to Make Government Work Better and Cost Less

OSTP's Tom Kalil learns more about how USDA is using human-centered design to improve the National School Lunch Program.

As an element of the President’s Strategy for American Innovation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been working with agencies to identify and share best practices to promote innovation and make government work better and cost less.  One such practice is Human-Centered Design (HCD), a methodology that puts the unmet needs of people at the center of efforts to develop new and improved products, services and processes.  Recently, I spoke with the Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Jeff Greenfield, who has been working with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab to improve the National School Lunch Program by using HCD.

Q: What was the problem that USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the OPM Innovation Lab worked together to solve using human-centered design?

To improve children’s access to healthy meals at school, FNS and OPM partnered to address enrollment issues with the National School Lunch Program. From May 2014-April 2015, the HCD project created a multidisciplinary team of both designers from the Innovation Lab and FNS subject matter experts.  Together they reviewed existing applications, regulations, and guidance documents. The team then conducted in-depth interviews and observations in U.S. schools with people who participate in the program. Applying this design process uncovered insights into unique experiences, systemic challenges, and unmet individual needs that hinder program enrollment. The team then integrated these insights into design application prototypes that they rapidly tested with parents.

Q: What are some examples of the steps that FNS needed to take to streamline the application process for the school lunch program and reduce the rate of application errors?

By leading FNS through a HCD-based problem-solving approach, the team gained additional insight into the nature of household application error. With this information, the team was able to make key changes. The project team’s output was informed by a year-long, multi-phase process which included: (1) a full review of statutes, regulations, and policy guidance; (2) research to identify best practices in application design already in use at the State/local level; (3) interviews with key stakeholders (ex. school administrators, school meal program operators) on ways to improve the application process; and (4) usability focus group testing of the application prototype with parents. The team focused separately on design features such as spacing, highlights, and the placement of data elements; text labels and the summary instructions that appear next to those elements; and detailed, intuitive application instructions, many of which changes were made in service of HCD principles.  Furthermore, the application’s design and format were subject to an extensive series of iterative improvements based on the research findings and focus group feedback described above. As a result of this project, FNS has credited the Lab and its design process with changing how they approach problem solving.

Q: What results did the project generate?  What kind of savings could this initiative generate for the taxpayer?

FNS believes that the new, simplified and streamlined National School Lunch Program application will help reduce the kind of error tied to households’ difficulty with previous application design formats and the instructional documents that accompany them.  Household application error puts access to healthy school meals at risk for some children.  From a financial perspective, it also means FNS makes inaccurate reimbursement payments to schools for the meals they provide. Reducing the application error rate will reduce the costs associated with improper payments.  A 2015 USDA study found that the improper payment rate in the lunch program was 15.8 percent, representing $1.9 billion in overpayments and underpayments.  FNS has set a goal to reduce that rate to no more than 10 percent by school year 2019-2020, a substantial savings to the American taxpayers.  The new application is one of many initiatives that will help us meet that goal.

Q: Given the success of this project, are there any steps that USDA is considering to use HCD more broadly?

The Innovation Lab at OPM (Lab) helped FNS reframe new ways of approaching our problem solving process. To begin, the Lab brought the FNS staff into a two-day training session in the Lab where they learned the basic principles of HCD. Throughout the project, the Lab worked with FNS team members to teach them how HCD can uncover insights into the unmet needs of the children, parents and school staff they serve. Working side by side, the FNS team learned, practiced and strengthened their HCD skills and knowledge both to support this specific project and more broadly to empower us to apply a similar approach when tackling future program, service, and product challenges. As co-creators in the project, we saw HCD’s power to uncover root causes, rather than fix symptoms of public sector problems. As a result, following the conclusion of this project, several FNS team members are committed to applying HCD to other projects under their purview, and to encouraging other programs in USDA to do so as well.  

Q: What advice would you have for others thinking about using HCD?

Send your staff to OPM’s two-day HCD training.  FNS has credited the Lab and its design process with changing how we approach problem solving. In the future, we plan to tackle programmatic issues by understanding challenges through the eyes of the people we strive to help, rather than relying solely on subject matter expertise, perceptions of challenges or quantitative data alone. This approach will improve the FNS’s ability to deliver public services through practical design-based tools that address the complexity of public policy and program delivery.

You can learn more about OPM’s HCD work here.