Forward Focus: Shawna Hein

A conversation with Code for America’s Vice President of Experience
A graphic with Shawna Hein's headshot and a quote:

2023 was a transformative year for Code for America in many ways, including the fact that we welcomed a new set of faces to Code for America’s executive team. To kick off 2024, we’re featuring conversations with these leaders in our “Forward Focus” series—highlighting their journey to our organization, their vision for the future of government services, and how we can build a new digital age that works for all. Today, we hear from Shawna Hein, VP of Experience leading our design, insights, and client success teams.

Tell us a bit about your professional journey and what brought you to Code for America. What excites you most about our work? 

I’ve been working in tech for about 15 years, my educational background is actually in Computer Science and Sociology. In the past I worked for many large companies, consulted, and ran my own business. 

About seven years ago I started getting disillusioned with designing services that were all about putting more money into people’s pockets, things weren’t feeling satisfying. That’s when I found out about civic tech as an area of focus, and I joined the team at Ad Hoc and jumped right into work at Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services and then  My six years at Ad Hoc taught me so much about how to work with government to center services around the people that need them. 

I joined Code for America 1.5 years ago, primarily because I was excited about the way we’re able to work with government on products, services, and policy—the trifecta that makes the most impact for folks. For example, in our criminal justice work, we help states craft policy around automatic record clearance, and we prototype product and service solutions to accompany the policy and make the implementation easier.

Lately, I’m excited about continuing to build our relatively new, multidisciplinary Experience practice that focuses on improving the client experience with government services. We brought our qualitative researchers and data scientists together into an Insights discipline, led by Jenn Thom. That Insights discipline will be working closely with design, client success, and our new Impact team, to work out even more collaborative processes with our clients and the impact we can make on the client experience at the center of everything.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are rapidly redefining the ways tech fits into our daily lives. What do you think is going to define the “new digital age” we’ve entered? 

It’s funny because I took an AI course in college—I remember building optical character recognition software using neural nets at a little computer lab at Oberlin College. And that was a long time ago. So AI-based data processing tools are not exactly new. What is new is the public awareness of them and the enthusiasm and creativity being put to bear on how to solve meaty problems with these tools.

I’m excited for the ways we can continue to use our Experience practice’s problem definition process with an eye for identifying specific blockages and slowdowns in data flows and benefits processes. We can leverage AI-powered methods like pattern-recognition, classification, and summarization to help identify as well as solve these blockages. 

Naturally, we are committed to ensuring that any processes involving AI methods undergo thorough human cross-checks before being presented to individuals seeking access to benefits. This is an example of where our Experience practice shines in evaluating the impact of AI, because with our integrated disciplines, client success can test and track in partnership with qualitative research and data science methods to provide a comprehensive report back before launching. 

Ultimately, “using emerging technology” should not be a goal in and of itself. At Code for America we are focusing on improving government experiences for people in the most effective, human-centered, and empathetic way possible, with whatever tools are best for the job.

Equity and inclusion are important when designing and building services and products in any industry—but in government, they are absolutely essential.

What do you see as the most important factors for ensuring government prioritizes equity in digital service delivery? 

Equity and inclusion are important when designing and building services and products in any industry—but in government, they are absolutely essential. The main areas that government needs to invest in to ensure equity include:

  • Ensuring language equity. Many Americans who need to access services will need to apply for these services in a language other than English. Making sure this is seamless for folks involves more than simply hiring a translator once you’ve built a product. Folks like multilingual content designers, team members with localization knowledge, and client success advocates  ideally are involved in the entire product and service lifecycle. Large language models trained on a variety of languages could also end up being very helpful in ensuring language equity in government services.  
  • Ensuring that products and services are accessible to folks with visible and invisible disabilities. This includes common checks like whether products work well with screen readers, but also making sure our systems are designed well for folks with cognitive disabilities, and thinking of a neurodiverse audience when making content and design decisions. 
  • Leveraging insights from qualitative and quantitative research and service design to ensure that government makes data-driven decisions. Researchers and service designers bring a holistic understanding of client barriers and related solutions to ensure that government makes informed decisions about how to design and improve products and services. These decisions should be based on methodologies that include representative test groups as much as possible. Decisions focused on increasing equitable access to programs may result in different strategies for different populations—I’ve been inspired by the Targeted Universalism approach when thinking about this. 
  • Investing in evaluation to ensure that the impact of streamlined, client-centered service delivery is documented.These learnings, alongside the data captured by qualitative and quantitative research, can then be shared  and improve client outcomes across government in different localities and at all levels. 

What makes you most excited about the state of civic tech and the year ahead? 

I’ve been heartened and am excited about the number of digital teams being formed in-house in both state and federal government bodies in the last few years! Many of my former colleagues who worked at agencies in the past are now working directly on government teams where they can access systems and work on processes directly. Having great technologists in-house only will make it easier for all of us to improve the services and products people access through the government every day.  

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