Dec 31 2009

Don't Forget the End User

Photo: John Welzenbach

Considering the proliferation of interagency initiatives and a new push for the Lines of Business initiatives, it’s often easy to forget what our government-systems capabilities are designed to do in the first place: to properly and adequately serve the end user, whether that’s a taxpayer or a federal employee.

In this new collaborative and consolidated landscape, users tend to become more and more detached from systems designers, from the installers and from the technical services people who help make sure things are up and running and that the systems work properly.

So, when developing systems and applications, how do you make sure you don’t forget those end users? Particularly in an era of e-government initiatives and shared-services centers at which many different agencies have critical needs that must be met, how does a CIO or other senior information technology executive make sure he or she is covering the demands of all users?

Norm Enger, director of the Human Resources Line of Business at the Office of Personnel Management, says one approach that’s effective is to form groups of agencies to provide input and feedback as to whether systems are meeting requirements — and what needs to be done to modify systems and applications when necessary.

“From the very start, it’s a collaborative approach,” Enger says. “All the way through, we have fully engaged all of these agencies. And we meet with them every month on a task-force basis, but we also have numerous smaller work groups assigned to different responsibilities.

“Through this collaborative approach — with a great deal of communication in having them define the vision and goals — we’ve gotten a tremendous buy-in from the agencies across the federal government. We’ve also tried to clearly define our business plan. We want to be very clear about our objectives and how we plan to achieve them.”

It really comes down to a matter of ownership, and

the fact that nobody — when it comes to the latest technology — wants to have the way they approach their processes dictated to them.

“The simplest thing is getting the end-user community involved as early as possible,” notes Bob Woodruff, a principal consulting manager at Robbins-Gioia and a veteran of a number of IT projects at the Defense Department.

“And you want to get the right users involved up front — the most knowledgeable users,” Woodruff says. “I’m talking about those users who not only understand what the benefit of this system would be, but even how it could be enhanced to improve the overall picture.”

To help make sure that applications continue to serve your users’ needs over time, there’s also a real need to elicit feedback from users and systems specialists on a regular basis.

“In the HR line of business, we’ve established a customer council that consists of 11 agencies that volunteered to provide feedback,” Enger says. “I call this ‘the voice of the customer,’ and the members of this council develop performance metrics for what we expect from a shared-services center in terms of error rates, security, privacy, customer satisfaction and so on.”

Another primary tenet is continuity among those users who provide feedback and advice so that you can compare demands, suggestions and recommendations over time.

“Consistency is very important,” Woodruff says. “I’ve been involved in situations where the end-user group keeps changing. It needs to be a consistent user group throughout the whole process of development. Otherwise, there’s no standard of comparison, or everybody brings their own things to the table, and it keeps changing. Then you can never nail down the requirements.”

When that happens, you get the same result as if you’d forgotten about the end users from the get-go.