If you’re searching for inspiration on how to tackle an upcoming transformation initiative, skip the Fortune 100 and look somewhere more unexpected: the U.S. federal government. Federal agencies and departments have excelled at all sorts of staggeringly ambitious tasks for decades across national security, administrative operations and citizen services. They also need to support millions of employees. A 2020 Brookings Institution estimate suggests the federal government has a workforce comprising over 9 million full-time, contract and grant employees and military personnel. By comparison, Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, has around 2 million employees. The need to operate at scale, on budget and for millions of citizen customers is the federal government’s baseline. It’s a lot of pressure — but it’s why the government’s renewed commitment to innovation is inspiring.

Today, federal agencies are dealing with the same challenges as private enterprises: an exploding demand for immediate service, a burgeoning skills shortage, ongoing cyberattacks and legacy infrastructure. The result: They’re embracing accelerated transformation like never before. “In the last five years, I’ve enjoyed seeing how the government has changed dramatically, from doing the status quo to driving the leading edge,” says Brian Boardman, IBM Consulting Federal Salesforce Practice leader.

Over his three-decade career, Boardman has worked with commercial and government entities to achieve their digital transformation goals. As he dedicates more time to federal agencies, he’s noticing a concerted effort by them to improve how they operate, with a clear motivating factor: increase customer satisfaction.

“There’s a much bigger expectation around usability and how things look — not just how they function.” Brian Boardman

Government agencies are looking to transform themselves — not only in their applications, but in a lot of their business processes,” Boardman says. “The biggest focus I see is around usability. The federal government is actually requiring agencies to report on customer satisfaction on an annual basis. And it’s all driven by the constituents.” As federal agencies accelerate their own transformation journeys, here are four practices other governments (and commercial organizations) can adopt.

Improve employee experience with human-centered design

Organizations striving to enhance customer experience (CX) are likely to be more successful in their transformation journeys if they improve employee experience (EX). This is a big focus area for the federal government, given the size of its workforce. “Remember, those employees are the same group of people that are the citizen consumers on the other end of it,” Boardman says. “If you treat what you’re building for employees the same as what you build for customers, it becomes a much better environment for everyone.”

The golden rule is to make an application easy and intuitive; when you put usability first, you’ll see a higher adoption rate. “The government has realized a lot of applications and sites they have are not conducive to the population, especially the younger generations. There’s a much bigger expectation around usability and how things look — not just how they function,” Boardman says. Government workers want to spend more time using their work tools and less time figuring out how to use them.

In a Gartner survey, employers that embraced human-centered design saw workforce fatigue go down by as much as 44% and performance improve by up to 28%. Today, Boardman says federal agencies are leveraging technologies like AI and business process automation to improve EX.

Explore agile practices and co-creation

Gone are the days when organizations could start a project one year and wait several more to have something to show for it. “Candidly, every single one of the things we’re doing is on a two-week sprint cycle,” Boardman says. Much of that is thanks to Agile methodology, which ditches longer-term software development life cycles in favor of nimble teams, daily stand-ups, week-by-week sprints and continuous collaboration.

But Agile practices aren’t just about speed. The big payoff is customer satisfaction. Boardman recalls the time a U.S. Army client needed a new tool to help with logistics. The military worker received a proof of concept in less than three weeks, and it was better than he had originally hoped for. “People in the federal government are really collaborative, and that’s what makes working with them a positive thing,” Boardman says. “They want you to be bringing new ideas to them, and showing them what the art of the possible could look like.”

Uphold the highest standards on AI ethics and data

According to a recent survey from the IBM Institute for Business Value, 75% of corporate executives rank AI ethics as an important issue, but most believe that their own organizations fall short. Government organizations have to be much more careful with data and AI than the typical company, given the vital and sensitive nature of much of what they do.

As concerns about data and online privacy continue to rise, organizations, both government and commercial, need to approach data less like Silicon Valley and more like the Pentagon. “The federal government are rule makers and rule followers,” Boardman says. “They have data security officers engaged in these conversations.”

Embrace a sense of mission

According to several recent studies, including this 2019 study from Harvard Business Review, purpose-driven organizations steadily outperform less motivated ones in everything from company growth to consumer loyalty. When employees have a sense of mission, innovation goes up, and nothing drives a sense of mission more than realizing shared goals. “Most of the people I’ve worked with in the government are trying to make the country better, not worse,” Boardman says. “Everyone wants to be productive. They want to do something that adds value.” With fast turnarounds fueled by digital transformation, he says, “appreciation and the accolades across the team come much more frequently. That’s a high motivational factor, especially for employees who are leading the work.”

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