In 2020, everyone found themselves steering into unfamiliar waters. We’re living through the biggest public health emergency in recent history and we’ve experienced groundbreaking shifts in how we understand and combat social injustice.

While the past year has bred a deep sense of dislocation for many individuals, it also allowed us to embrace innovation as an imperative. Organizations have reimagined the nature of the “team” and recognized the need to adapt business infrastructure to meet emerging requirements. Empathy has become more central to interactions.

As part of its annual Trends report, Fjord, Accenture’s global design and innovation consultancy, has mapped seven key trends that define this unique and precarious moment in time, analyzing how they will impact the human experience and how organizations can adapt.

As leaders of the Accenture Federal Digital Studio, we came together (virtually, of course) to discuss how each trend can resonate for federal agencies. Both the private and public sectors are tasked to address the immense challenges that arose this past year, but government arguably has a greater sense of urgency and higher degree of responsibility when it comes to being responsive.

“The stakes are higher for government. The role of government has never been more obvious in people’s lives, and the consequences of action and inaction in the face of change has never been felt more acutely.” – Megan Peterman

Overall, the Fjord Trends speak to the authenticity of the individual’s experience, especially at a time when all the old truths you thought you knew about your customers are being replaced by new realities. By understanding people’s new context, empathizing with the way they feel, and providing them with the tools to “hack” their own solutions, organizations can empower their workforce and elevate the customer experience. We believe these trends offer a useful perspective for how government can move forward in 2021 with more agility, a more resilient workforce, more positive customer interactions, and a renewed sense of mission.

We share this year’s trends, their federal implications, and highlights from our conversation below:

Collective displacement

In 2020, we saw people living and working very differently, virtually overnight. Thrown from their usual routines, they experienced displacement in how they accessed information and how they engaged with one another.

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“It’s not just that people’s needs have changed - a shift in mindsets means that the way they navigate the world has changed and the way they will interact with and respond to federal agencies will change.” – Lauren Oliver

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Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to counter these shifts with new modes of communication and engagement, though.

They can double down on their efforts to understand citizens’ evolving needs. Shifting to personalized digital services can help government create a more purposeful experience by using data and human-centered design to better address citizens’ unique needs. This allows government to interact with customers in new ways that help to close the gap created by physical displacement.

Do-it-yourself innovation

The Fjord team has seen innovation increasingly being driven by people’s homegrown solutions to unexpected challenges: Life hacks and work hacks. Technology emerges as a facilitator for people’s ingenuity; they are finding their own fixes, using the tools at hand.

“I am seeing an influx of creativity and also a hunger for test-and-learn. How do we quickly get ideas out there and figure out if they're the right ideas, if they're good ideas?” – Sabrina Blowers

Agencies can leverage this trend by tapping their own internal ingenuity and empowering employees. Consider the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) “Customer Experience Cookbook,” which includes well-tested recipes for agencies looking to build or bolster their customer experience capabilities. Agencies can leverage resources like this to enhance employees’ problem-solving power.

And that’s not the only shift we’re seeing with empowered employees …

Sweet teams are made of this

In addition to the obvious technical changes, work-from-home has shifted the employer-employee dynamic in subtle ways, from dress codes to new social dynamics. But it’s also created larger questions, such as what happens when geographic proximity no longer constrains the recruitment process? When there are no physical boundaries, new opportunities emerge to break down long-standing siloes.

While the future won’t be one-size-fits-all, there’s an opportunity to reimagine the workforce without geographic boundaries as a way to attract young people into government. What can an agency do to attract millennials and Gen Zers passionate about the mission impact of government work if they don’t need to go into an office or live near Washington, D.C.?

All this speaks to a renewed embrace of diversity: Agencies will look to draw in people with different backgrounds and points of view. As a result, many will rethink their recruitment processes, finding new ways to reach out across the full spectrum of potential employees.

“It's about doing things in different ways. How does government adapt to the new ways in which people are working and living? How do you fit into people's new lives, rather than expecting people's new lives just to adapt to the way government has always delivered services?” – Kathy Conrad

In government, we’re ultimately seeing siloes between agencies and workstreams break down, replaced by cross-functional and cross-agency teams. They’re building solutions together, redefining “teams” to encompass stakeholders across a broader ecosystem.

Interaction wanderlust

Screen time has become tediously homogenous, with the digital experience templated to the point of blandness. Where’s the excitement, the joy, the happy accidents? We have seen a shared desire for something more from the screens through which we live our lives. As such, government needs to find a new way of understanding needs, solving problems, and delivering relevant experiences – an approach that combines the best of physical and digital interactions.

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We're not trying to recreate the old in virtual. We're thinking and delivering new ways to engage with the customer, the citizen.” – Sabrina Blowers

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Instead of replicating something like a social worker’s home visit online, we can reimagine a more blended experience that brings the best of physical experiences to digital ones. With Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, for example, digital experiences can be more intuitive and spontaneous by prioritizing personalization and ease-of-use. With higher-level screen encounters that effectively and safely simulate real world interactions, agencies can avoid the cost and complexity of physical interactions while delivering impactful experiences at scale to meet mission more effectively.

Liquid infrastructure

In disrupted times, infrastructure must adapt to meet emerging needs.

For government, liquid infrastructure means not just IT infrastructure, which is always a work in progress, but also business-process infrastructure. The systems and processes, the governance and the operating models – all the main supports of federal work can be reexamined and reimagined as government adapts to changing circumstance, to provide more seamless, convenient, and consistent experience across channels – on the phone, online, and in person.

For example, the shift to digital services gained new urgency as COVID forced agencies to curtail in-person services, accelerating quick development and adoption of new digital and self-service solutions and scaling up those already in place. For example, the Internal Revenue Service worked with the VA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Social Security Administration to distribute stimulus payments quickly and accurately to everyone eligible – including people who are unbanked, experiencing homelessness, or are hard to reach. They released an online tracking tool to enable people to easily check the status of their payments. Consider also how the VA saw a 1000x increase in the number of daily telehealth video appointments from February to September 2020.

And infrastructure will only continue evolving after COVID.

“I think of the TSA and whether or not we're going to want to touch a kiosk, or how we're going to have our documents scanned - those places where there are physical touchpoints may need to be re-imagined [post-pandemic].” - Lauren Oliver

Across government agencies, an embrace of fluid infrastructures could potentially bolster resilience and make public-facing processes more responsive. How can emerging policy acknowledge and support this more dynamic service-delivery mindset?

“Concerns about security, privacy, and resistance to change that have slowed the shift to digital services are being overcome by necessity as agencies need to find new ways to deliver services and meet customer needs.” - Kathy Conrad

Empathy challenge

Americans’ trust in government has been declining. A recent Pew study found that 64% of adults in the U.S. believe that low trust in federal government makes it harder to solve problems.

While the roots of this distrust are complex and deep, agencies can embrace this moment as an opportunity to enhance their relationships with the people they serve. Specifically, we see a need to ensure that empathy is a core focus for how the government operates and delivers services. The ability to listen, the willingness to understand – this is the bedrock upon which government can build in its efforts to deliver fair and equal treatment that instills trust and confidence. But empathy without action is hollow, affirmed Oliver.

“How do we use empathy to prioritize which thing to solve first, which issue for citizens we should focus on?” – Sabrina Blowers

Federal leaders should look at ways to make their empathy actionable by using it to understand and prioritize customer needs. They can lean on empathy to nudge behaviors, Conrad suggested, to actually change and shape interactions with government. By finding new ways to listen, and by developing a better understanding of people’s needs, it’s possible to modify behaviors to support more effective customer engagement and service delivery.

Rituals lost and found

What made 2020 so emotionally challenging? It was, at least in part, the cancellation or disruption of the rituals around which we’ve built our lives. Nothing seemed normal or regular anymore, and with this loss of ritual came a crisis of meaning.

Our team sees this as an opportunity for federal agencies to enhance customer interactions, though. Instead of seeking to shape people’s behavior to fit with how government wants to operate, we can reinvent government to better align with emerging public needs.

The loss of ritual offers a chance to reimagine and be more intentional. What of the old process can we let go of, and what new approaches might work better? Freed from geographic constraints, it’s possible to tap into the energy of new, virtual rituals to build a more purposeful customer experience.

Forging new paths

Much of what you thought you knew about your customers and workforce has changed (and will continue to change). But with this change comes a chance to tap new talent, new ideas, and new people. No longer bound by the old rules, government can use this momentum to think innovatively about how to use AI and other emerging technologies and processes in support of more personalized and more meaningful engagements going forward.

Critical to all these actions should be an emphasis on listening, learning, and questioning, to truly understand customer and employee needs. Then, apply those insights to continuously improve.

While 2020 took us off the edge of the map, the Fjord Trends can serve as a compass for those seeking a new direction. We may be sailing in uncharted seas, but it’s in that direction that new discoveries lie.

Kathy Conrad

Director – Accenture Federal Services, Digital Government

Lauren Oliver

Group Design Director – Accenture Federal Studio

Megan Peterman

Managing Director – Accenture Federal Services, Accenture Federal Studio & Customer Experience Practice Lead

Sabrina Blowers

Senior Manager – Accenture Federal Studio, Group Strategy

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