We launched the first Designing for Financial Empowerment (DFE) project with the goal of making free tax preparation services in New York City more effective and accessible through the process of service design—to tackle a complex question that had no easy answer: 

- Why are financially vulnerable New Yorkers paying for a service they can get for free? 

As a result of this project, DCA and the rest of the DFE project team were not only able to co-design several innovative solutions that may succeed in improving the effectiveness of free tax preparation services, but also to expand both DCA’s ability to use service design in its ongoing work and Parsons’ capacity to shape the process to the needs of the public sector.  

Through this project, the DFE team spoke directly with clients, former paid tax preparers, and other key stakeholders, uncovering valuable information about New Yorkers’ perceptions of free tax preparation services and identifying opportunities to enhance the client experience. After a rigorous and iterative process of co-design, the team identified the VITA Portal, an easy-to-use digital kiosk, as the most promising enhancement. 

As the team moved from the Prototyping phase and began discussions about piloting the VITA Portal, the team determined that we would not be able to launch the VITA Portal in time for the 2016 tax season due to the time required to scope, provision, build, and test the new service. Luckily, the Co-Design and Prototyping phases yielded several viable service concepts, two of which are being implemented in 2016: branding all sites participating in NYC’s Annual Tax Season Initiative as NYC FREE TAX PREP sites and employer-based VITA sites. 

Making sure all of the potential constraints of implementation are considered during the Prototyping phase is just one of the valuable lessons we learned during this first DFE project. Here are three other key takeaways from the project team:

– Timing is critical.

For example, while it was very easy to talk to tax filers in January and February, it was a lot harder to speak with tax filers in October when the team was in the Discovery phase. Similarly, although the Prototyping phase ended in late July, the time needed to finalize design, clarify user privacy and data security considerations, engage City and external partners, and implement a new technology project made a launch of the VITA Portal during the 2016 tax season impossible.

– The process yields far more than just a set of prototypes.

The service design process can create a pipeline of potential new policy and service innovations for future exploration and implementation. The process for this project began with a large number of challenges narrowed down to just a few prototyped solutions. For government officials and design practitioners it is important to find ways to work on these valuable insights and processes beyond the project timeline, which can continue to inform policy and service improvements in the future.

– The service design process is a vital tool for expanding the boundaries of public sector stakeholder engagement in solving community challenges.

Through this process, the DFE team was able to bring diverse stakeholders together not just to identify challenges and opportunities, but also to co-design, refine, and test solutions, moving beyond the traditional limits of public sector stakeholder engagement. This deeper engagement brought to the surface many interesting potential solutions to VITA challenges, and helped some of those solutions gain momentum as VITA providers and other stakeholders were able to voice their support early in the process.