REI Insights

From Data to Empathy: Making Digital Services Work for Citizens
May 8, 2024

Enhancing Citizen Engagement through Empathetic Digital Services

 In an age where innovation shapes our daily lives, governments are awakening to the profound impact of technology on citizen engagement and operational efficiency. The imperative now lies in harnessing cutting-edge tools to foster transparency, efficiency, and citizen-centric governance.

The recent Government Executive event at the National Union Building in Washington, DC, “Making Digital Services Work for Citizens,” brought together thought leaders Sean Friendly, Deputy Director of the Defense Health Agency Public Health, and Shyam Salona, CEO of REI Systems, to discuss the transformative impact of technology on citizen engagement. Troy K. Schneider, Editor at Large with GovExec moderated the panel.

Five key points emerged from this discussion about the challenges and successes the participants have experienced making digital services work for everyone.

Takeaway 1: Effective Digital Services and Data Go Hand in Hand

Central to creating digital services that resonate with users is the prominence of data. Without robust data and measurement mechanisms, the efficacy of user experience remains uncertain. Establishing benchmarks through data, deploying innovative solutions, and continuously assessing outcomes are pivotal in ensuring agility and progress.

The Defense Health Agency (DHA) exemplifies this by leveraging technology to enhance healthcare for service members stationed globally. Because service members are distributed in austere environments around the world, DHA is using an innovative virtual care model to create a digital-first, patient-centered healthcare delivery system. One example of virtual care is when DHA leverages virtual pathology to solve a difficult case. The patient’s data is sent around the world to numerous pathologists so they can try to help provide the best treatment.

REI Systems, aiming to attract more research and innovation application submissions from small businesses for a client, addressed usability issues hindering engagement. By deploying an analytics tool, they gained insights into user behaviors, swiftly identifying pain points and streamlining the platform experience. Early data suggests a remarkable 90% improvement in performance times, underscoring the efficacy of data-driven enhancements.

Takeaway 2: Empathy Drives Good Customer Experiences

Empathy is essential in providing good customer service. By empathizing with user emotions, organizations can discern and address pain points effectively, fostering positive user experiences.

DHA exemplifies the power of empathy in cultivating positive customer experiences by involving end users and military members in the initial stages of technology evaluation. By prioritizing their feedback and insights, DHA ensures that the solutions implemented resonate with users’ needs and preferences. This inclusive approach not only enhances the adoption process but also fosters a sense of ownership and satisfaction among end users, ultimately leading to improved outcomes.

In their efforts to revamp an immigration case management system handling millions of applications annually, REI Systems embarked on a journey to prioritize empathy in enhancing customer experiences. Recognizing the inefficiencies of paper-based processes and the need for federal employees to adapt to digital methods, REI Systems organized “clinics” to observe user interactions firsthand. This approach allowed them to understand users’ challenges and needs, leading to valuable insights for refining workflows and streamlining the system. Additionally, REI Systems conducted qualitative research, analyzing helpdesk tickets and user interviews to further inform their approach. This data-driven approach enabled them to prioritize and address key pain points effectively. As a result, the client experienced a notable 19% increase in immigration application processing, highlighting the success of their strategic improvements.

Takeaway 3: Persistent Efforts Overcome Digital Service Challenges

Federal agencies face a range of challenges when integrating new technology into their environments, stemming from unique constraints and requirements. These include integrating modern customer experience technologies with legacy systems, navigating stringent data security and privacy regulations, and securing adequate budgets for technology investments.

Overcoming these challenges necessitates persistent efforts and adaptive solutions. One effective strategy involves gradual implementation of new technologies, facilitating a smoother transition and minimizing resistance to change, while being sensitive to budget constraints. Additionally, engaging stakeholders throughout the process is crucial for ensuring alignment and buy-in. Finally, establishing clear data governance and compliance guidelines is essential for addressing privacy and security concerns related to user data.


Takeaway 4: AI Will Speed the Delivery of Personalized Services

One area that has the potential to dramatically change the future of citizen experience is artificial intelligence (AI). For one, it will allow for more personalized services to meet citizens where they are.

AI’s ability to process and analyze large volumes of data, combined with machine learning algorithms to identify patterns, trends, and insights, can inform decision-making and improve service delivery. In healthcare, for example, AI can help craft personalized treatment plans by considering each patient’s unique genetics, lifestyle, and medical history. This is particularly significant in areas like oncology, where AI can help in designing cancer treatment protocols that are tailored to the genetic profile of a patient’s tumor, potentially improving outcomes.

Another area where AI is being applied is to improve the healthcare of military personnel. The military is conducting a study now to try to figure out why cancer rates are higher among military air and ground aviation crews. Air crewmembers observed had a 24 percent higher chance of cancer compared to the U.S. population. The military collected this information and is using AI to set benchmarks and search for patterns to better help us understand the possible cause of this problem so we can stop it from happening.

In another example, the Department of Defense Serum Repository (DODSR), established in 1989, stores over 74 million serum specimens from mandatory HIV tests of military personnel. The program is starting to use AI to support cutting-edge clinical and epidemiological studies and research that will help better fight diseases.

Takeaway 5: Good Digital Services Is A Journey and Not a Destination

Regardless of what technologies reshape our experiences, the government should embrace continuous digital transformation and customer experience. As society continually changes due to world events, new legislation, or groundbreaking technology, the government must keep pace with citizens’ or stakeholders evolving expectations for digital services.

The military’s electronic health record (EHR) system serves as a testament to the ongoing journey of digital transformation. Since 1968, the Department of Defense (DOD) has navigated various EHR systems like CHCS and AHLTA to document healthcare for service members, retirees, and their families. Despite advancements, interoperability issues persisted, prompting increased congressional oversight in the early 1990s. Subsequent efforts from 1998 to 2008 saw improved data sharing, yet fell short of expectations, leading to mandates for a fully interoperable EHR system. DOD’s adoption of MHS Genesis marks a significant step towards integration, but the journey continues. Genesis is designed to evolve as new technology emerges and the needs of our military men and women change.


In an era where innovation shapes our daily lives, the recent Government Executive event showcased the transformative impact of technology on citizen engagement. The engaging discussions highlighted the ongoing journey of digital transformation. From enhancing digital services through data synergy to embracing empathy for better customer experiences, the speakers underscored the importance of persistence amidst challenges. In this dynamic landscape, governments must remain agile to meet evolving expectations, ensuring digital services evolve alongside societal needs.