Social Innovation
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Creating Equitable Outcomes from Government Services through Radical Participation

03.01.23 | 11 min read | Text by Victor Udoewa


Government policies, products, and services are created without the true and full design participation and expertise of the people who will use them–the public: citizens, refugees, and immigrants. As a result, the government often replicates private sector anti-patterns1, using or producing oppressive, disempowering, and colonial policies through products and services that embody bias, limit access, create real harm, and discriminate against underutilized communities2 on the basis of various identities violating the President’s Executive Order on Equity. Examples include life-altering police use of racially and sexually biased facial recognition products, racial discrimination in the delivery access of life-saving Medicaid services and SNAP benefits, and racist child welfare service systems.

The Biden-Harris Administration should issue an executive order to embed Radical Participatory Design (RPD) into the design and development of all government policies, products, and services, and to require all federally-funded research to use Radical Participatory Research (RPR). Using an RPD and RPR approach makes the Executive Order on Racial Equity, Executive Order on Transforming the Customer Experience, and the Executive Order on DEIA more likely to succeed. Using RPD and RPR as the implementation strategy is an opportunity to create equitable social outcomes by embodying equity on the policy, product and service design side (Executive Order on Racial Equity), to improve the public’s customer experience of the government (Executive Order on Transforming the Customer Experience, President’s Management Agenda Priority 2), and to lead to a new and more just, equitable, diverse, accessible, and inclusive (JEDAI) future of work for the federal government (Executive Order on DEIA).

Challenge and Opportunity

The technology industry is disproportionately white and male. Compared to private industry overall, whites, men, and Asians are overrepresented while Latinx people, Black people, and women are underrepresented. Only 26% of technology positions in the U.S. are held by women though they represent 57% of the US workforce. Even worse, women of color hold 4% of technology positions even though they are 16% of the population. Similarly, Black Americans are 14% of the population but hold 7% of tech jobs. Latinx Americans only hold 8% of tech jobs while comprising 19% of the population. This representation decreases even more as you look at leadership roles in technology. In FY2020, the federal government spent $392.1 billion contracting services, including services to build products. Latinx, African Americans, Native Americans, and women are underrepresented in the contractor community.

The lack of diversity in designers and developers of the policies, products, and services we use leads to harmful effects like algorithmic bias, automatic bathroom water and soap dispensers that do not recognize darker skin, and racial bias in facial recognition (mis)identification of Black and Brown people. 

With a greater expectation of equity from government services, the public experiences greater disappointment when government policies, services, and products are biased, discriminatory, or harmful. Examples include inequitable public school funding services, race and poverty bias in child welfare systems, and discriminatory algorithmic hiring systems used in government.

The federal government has tried to improve the experience of its products and services through methodologies like Human-centered Design (HCD). In HCD, the design process is centered on the community who will use the design, by first conducting research interviews or observations. Beyond the research interactions with community members, designers are supposed to carry empathy for the community all the way through the design, development, and launch process. Unfortunately, given the aforementioned negative outcomes of government products and services for various communities, empathy often is absent. What empathy may be generated does not persist long enough to influence or impact the design process. Ultimately, individual appeals to empathy are inadequate at generating systems level change. Scientific studies show that white people, who make up the majority of technologists and policy-makers, have a reduced capacity for empathy for people of other and similar backgrounds. As a result, the push for equity remains in government services, products, and policies, leading to President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities and, still, again, with the Executive Order on Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.

The federal government lacks processes to embed empathy throughout the lifecycle of policy, product, and service design, reflecting the needs of community groups. Instead of trying to build empathy in designers who have no experiential knowledge, we can create empathetic processes and organizations by embedding lived experience on the team.

Radical Participatory Design (RPD) is an approach to design in which the community members, for whom one is designing, are full-fledged members on the research, design, and development team. In traditional participatory design, designers engage the community at certain times and otherwise work, plan, analyze, or prepare alone before and after those engagements. In RPD, the community members are always there because they are on the team; there are no meetings, phone calls, or planning without them.

RPD has a few important characteristics. First, the community members are always present and leading the process. Second, the community members outnumber the professional designers, researchers, or developers. Third, the community members own the artifacts, outcomes, and narratives around the outcomes of the design process. Fourth, community members are compensated equitably as they are doing the same work as professional designers. Fifth, RPD teams are composed of a qualitatively representative sample (including all the different categories and types of people) of the community.

Embedding RPD in the government connects the government to a larger movement toward participatory democracy. Examples include the Philadelphia Participatory Design Lab, the Participatory City Making Lab, the Center for Lived Experience, the Urban Institute’s participatory Resident Researchers, and Health and Human Service’s “Methods and Emerging Strategies to Engage People with Lived Experience.” Numerous case studies show the power of participatory design to reduce harm and improve design outcomes. RPD can maximize this by infusing equity as people with lived experience both choose, check, and direct the process.

As the adoption of RPD increases across the federal government, the prevalence and incidence of harm, bias, trauma, and discrimination in government products and services will decrease, aiding the implementation of the executive orders on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities and Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, and ensuring the OSTP AI Bill of Rights for AI products and services. Additionally, RPR aligns with OSTP’s actions to advance open and equitable research. Second, the reduction of harm, discrimination, and trauma improves the customer experience (CX) of government services aiding the implementation of the Executive Order on Transforming the Customer Experience, the President’s Management Agenda Priority 2, and the CAP goal on Customer Experience. An improved CX will increase community adoption, use, and engagement with potentially helpful and life-supporting government services that underutilized people need. RPD highlights the important connection between equity and CX and creates a way to link the two executive orders. You cannot claim excellent CX when the CX is inequitable and entire underutilized segments of the public have a harmful experience.

Third, instead of seeking the intersection of business needs and user needs like in the private sector, RPD will move the country closer to its democratic ideals by equitably aligning the needs of the people with the needs of the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. There are various examples where the government acts like a separate entity completely unaligned to the will of a majority of the public (gun control, abortion). Project by project, RPD helps align the needs of the people and the needs of the government of the people when representative democracy does not function properly.
Fourth, all community members, from all walks of life, brought into government to do participatory research and design will gain or refine skills they can then use to stay in government policy, product, and service design or to get a job outside of government. The workforce outcomes of RPD further diversify policy, product, and service designers and researchers both inside and outside the federal government, aligning with the Executive Order on DEIA in the Federal Workforce.

Plan of Action

The use of RPD and RPR in government is the future of participatory government and a step towards truly embodying a government of the people. RPD must work at the policy level as well, as policy directs the creation of services, products, and research. Equitable product and service design cannot overcome inequitable and discriminatory policy.  The following recommended actions are initial steps to embody participatory government in three areas: policy design, the design and development of products and services, and funded research. Because all three areas occur across the federal government, executive action from the White House will facilitate the adoption of RPD.

Policy Design

An executive order from the president should direct agencies to use RPD when designing agency policy. The order should establish a new Radical Participatory Policy Design Lab (RPPDL) for each agency with the following characteristics:

The executive order should also create a Chief Experience Officer (CXO) for the U.S. as a White House role. The Office of the CXO (OCXO) would coordinate CX work across the government in accordance with the Executive Order on Transforming the CX, the PMA Priority 2, the CX CAP goal, and the OMB Circular A-11 280. The executive order would focus the OCXO on the work of coordinating, approving, advising the RPD work across the federal government, including the following initiatives:

Due to the distributed nature of the work, the funding for the various RPPDLs and the OCXO should come from money the director of OMB has identified and added to the budget the President submits to Congress, according to Section 6 of the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity. Agencies should also utilize money appropriated by the Agency Equity Teams required by the Executive Order on Further Advancing Racial Equity.

Product and Service Design

The executive order should mandate that all research, design, and delivery of agency products and services for the public be done through RPR and RPD. RPD should be used both for in-house and contracted work through grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements.

On in-house projects, funding for the RPD team should come from the project budget. For grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements, funding for the RPD team should come from the acquisition budget. As a result, the labor costs will increase since there are more designers on the project. The non-labor component of the project budget will be less. A slightly lower non-labor project budget is worth the outcome of improved equity. Agency offices can compensate for this by requesting a slightly higher project budget for in-house or contracted design and development services. 

In support of the Executive Order on Transforming the CX, the PMA Priority 2, and the CX CAP goal,  OMB should amend the OMB Circular A-11 280 to direct High Impact Service Providers (HISPs) to utilize RPD in their service work.

OSTP should add RPD and RPD case studies as example practices in OSTP’s AI Bill of Rights. RPD should be listed as a practice that can affect and reinforce all five principles.

Funded Research

The executive order should also mandate that all government-funded, use-inspired research about communities or intended to be used by people or communities, should be done through RPR. In order to determine if a particular intended research project is use-inspired, the following questions should be asked by the government funding agency prior to soliciting researchers:

  1. For technology research, is the technology readiness level (TRL) 2 or higher?
  2. Is the research about people or communities?
  3. Is the research intended to be used by people or communities?
  4. Is the research intended to create, design, or guide something that will be used by people and communities?

If the answer to any of the questions is yes, the funding agency should require the funded researchers to use an RPR approach.

Funding for the RPR team comes from the research grant or funding. Researchers can use the RPR requirement to estimate how much funding should be requested in the proposal.
OSTP should add RPR and the executive order to their list of actions to advance open and equitable research. RPR should be listed as a key initiative of the year of Open Science.


In order to address inequity, the public’s lived experience should lead the design and development process of government products and services. Because many of those products and services are created to comply with government policy, we also need lived experience to guide the design of government policy. Embedding Radical Participatory Design in government-funded research as well as policy, products, and services reduces harm, creates equity, and improves the public customer experience. Additionally, RPD connects and embeds equity in CX, moves us toward our democratic ideals, and creatively addresses the future of work by diversifying our policy, product, and service design workforce.

Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a product and a service in technology?

Because we do not physically hold digital products, the line between a software product and a software service is thin. Usually, a product is an offering or part of an offering that involves one interaction or touchpoint with a customer. In contrast, a service involves multiple touchpoints both online and offline, or multiple interactions both digital and non-digital.

For example, Google Calendar can be considered a digital product. A product designer for Google Calendar might work on designing its software interface, colors, options, and flows. However, a library is a service. As a library user, you might look for a book on the library website. If you can’t find it, you might call the library. The librarian might ask you to come in. You go in and work with the librarian to find the book. After realizing it is not there, the librarian might then use a software tool to request a new book purchase. Thus, the library service involved multiple touchpoints, both online and offline: a website, a phone line, an in-person service in the physical library, and an online book procurement tool.

Most of the federal government’s offerings are services. Examples like Medicare, Social Security, and veterans benefits involve digital products, in-person services in a physical building, paper forms, phone lines, email services, etc. A service designer designs the service and the mechanics behind the service in order to improve both the customer experience and the employee experience across all touchpoints, offline and online, across all interactions, digital and non-digital.

Why do you use the word “radical?” What is the difference between Participatory Design and RPD?

Participatory design (PD) has many interpretations. Sometimes PD simply means interviewing research participants. Because they are “participants,” by being interviewees, the work is participatory. Sometimes, PD  means a specific activity or method that is participatory. Sometimes practitioners use PD to mean a way of doing an activity. For example, we can do a design studio session with just designers, or we can invite some community members to take part for a 90-minute session. PD can also be used to indicate a methodology. A methodology is a collection of methods or activities; or a methodology is a philosophy or guiding philosophy or principles that help you choose a particular method or activity at a particular point in time or in a process.

In all the above ways of interpreting PD, there are times when the community is present and times when they are not. Moreover, the community members are never leading the process.

Radical comes from the Latin word “radix” meaning root. RPD means design in which the community participates “to the root,” fully, completely, from beginning to end. There are no times, planning, meetings, or phone calls where the community is not present because the community is the team.

What is the difference between RPD and peer review?

Peer review is similar to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). A participatory version of this could be called a Community Review Board (CRB). The difficulty is that a CRB can only reject a research plan; a CRB does not create the proposed research plans. Because a CRB does not ensure that great research plans are created and proposed, it can only reduce harm. It cannot create good. 

Equality means treating people the same. Equity means treating people differently to achieve equal outcomes. CRBs achieve equality only in approving power, by equally including community members in the approving process. CRBs fail to achieve equity in social outcomes of products and services because community members are missing in the research plan creation process, research plan implementation process, and the development process of policy, products, and services where inequity can enter. To achieve equal outcomes, equity, their lived experiential knowledge is needed throughout the entire process and especially in deciding what to propose to a CRB.

Still a CRB can be a preliminary step before RPR. Unfortunately, IRBs are only required for US government-funded research with human subjects. In practice, it is not interpreted to apply to the approval of design research for policy, products, and services, even when the research usually includes human subjects. The application of participatory CRBs to approve all research–including design research for policy, products, and services–can be an initial step or a pilot.

If anyone can do research, design, and development work, what is the point of hiring professional researchers, designers, or developers?

A good analogy is that of cooking. It is quite helpful for everyone to know how to cook. Most of us cook in some capacity. Yet, there are people who attend culinary school and become chefs or cooks. Has the fact that individual people can and do cook eliminated the need for chefs? No. Chefs and cooks are useful for various situations – eating at a restaurant, catering an event, the creation of cookbooks, lessons, etc.

The main idea is that the chefs have mainstream institutional knowledge learned from books and universities or cooking schools. But that is not the only type of knowledge. There is also lived, experiential knowledge as well as community, embodied, relational, energetic, intuitive, aesthetic, and spiritual knowledge. It is common to meet amazing chefs who have never been to a culinary school but simply learned to cook through lived experience of experimentation and having to cook everyday for X people. Some learned to cook through relational and community knowledge passed down in their culture through parents, mothers, and aunties. Sometimes, famous chefs will go and learn the knowledge of a particular culture from people who did not go to a learning school. The chefs will appropriate the knowledge and then create a cookbook to sell marketing a fusion cuisine, infused with the culture whose culinary knowledge they appropriated.

Similarly, everyone designs. It is not enough to be tech-savvy or an innovation and design expert. The most important knowledge to have is the lived experiential, community, relational, and embodied knowledge of the people for whom we are designing. When lived experience leads, the outcomes are amazing. Putting lived experience alongside professional designers can be powerful as well. Professional designers are still needed, as their knowledge can help improve the design process. Professionals just cannot lead, lead alone, or be the only knowledge base because inequity enters the system more easily.

Do RPR or RPD teams serve full-time or is it a part-time role?

To realize the ambitions of this policy proposal, full-time teams will be needed. The RPPDLs who are designing policy are full-time roles due to the amount and various levels of policy to design. For products and services, however, some RPD teams may be part-time. For example, improving an existing product or service may be one of many work projects a government team is conducting. So if they are only working on the project 50% of the time, they may only require a group of part-time community members. On the other hand, the work may require full-time work for RPD team members for the design and development of a greenfield or new product or service that does not exist. Full-time projects will need full-time community members. For part-time projects, community members can work on multiple projects to reach full-time capacity.

How do we compensate RPR or RPD team members outside of a grant, cooperative agreement, or contract?

Team members can receive non-monetary compensation like a gift card, wellness services, or child care. However, it is best practice to allow the community member to choose. Most will choose monetary compensation like grants, stipends, or cash payments.

Ultimately they should be paid at a level equal to that of the mainstream institutional experts (designers and developers) who are being paid to do the same work alongside the community members. Remember to compensate them for travel and child care when needed.

Why is the government the right sector to implement this? Why can’t this first be done in the private or nonprofit sector or even by government at the state or local level?

RPD is an opportunity for the government to lead the way. The private sector can make money without equitably serving everyone, so it has no incentive to do so. Nonprofits do not carry the level of influence the federal government carries. The federal government has more money to engage in this work than state or local governments. The federal government has a mandate to be equitable in its products and services and their delivery, and if this goes well, the government can make a law mandating organizations in the private and nonprofit sector to do the same work to transform. The government has a long history of using policy and services to discriminate against various underutilized groups. So the federal government should be the first one to use RPD to move towards equity. Ultimately the federal government has a huge influence on the lives of citizens, immigrant residents, and refugees, and the opportunity is great to move us toward equity.

Embedding RPD in government products and services should also be done at the state and local level. Each level will require different memos due to the different mechanics, budgets, dynamics, and policies. The hope is that RPD work at the federal government can help spark RPD work at various state, local, and county governments.

Is there a pilot or scaled-down version that could be implemented as a first step?

Possible first steps include:

  • Mandate that all use-inspired research, including design research for policy, products, and services, be reviewed by a Community Review Board (CRB) for approval.

  • If not approved, the research, design, and development cannot move forward.

  • Only mandate all government-funded, use-inspired research be conducted using RPR. Focusing on research funding alone shifts the payment of RPR community teams to the grant recipients, only.

  • Mandate all government-funded, use-inspired research use RPR and all contracted research, design, development, and delivery of government products and services uses RPD.

  • Focusing on research funding and contracted product and service work shifts the payment of RPR and RPD community team members to the grant recipients, vendors, and contract partners.

  • Choose a pilot agency, like NIH, to start.

  • Start with a high-profile set of projects such as the OMB life experience projects.
    Then, later we can advance to an entire pilot agency.

  • Focus on embedding equity measures in CX.

After equity is embedded in CX, start by choosing a pilot agency, benchmarking equity and CX, piloting RPD, and measuring the change attributable to RPD.
This allows time to build more evidence.

How do you ensure that a product or service continues developing according to community desires after the RPD team is finished?

In modern product and service development, products and services never convert into an operations and maintenance phase alone. They are continually being researched, designed, and developed due to continuous changes in human expectations, migration patterns, technology, human preferences, globalization, etc. If community members were left out of research, design, and development work after a service or product launches, then the service or product would no longer be designed and developed using an RPD approach. As long as the service or product is active and in service, radical participation in the continuous research, design, and development is needed.

Anti-patterns are common responses, fixes, or solutions to recurring problems that are highly ineffective, often counterproductive, and even harmful.
The phrase “underutilized communities” uses asset-based framing to refer to what others called historically and currently marginalized communities (which uses deficit-based framing). We as a country suffer and are behind where we should, could, and would be if we fully included all the gifts, talents, skills, abilities, and assets of these communities at all levels – government, higher education, leadership, science, business, etc.