A Seasoned Innovator on Transforming the American Workforce from Inside the Government

How +Acumen is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to improve the lives of the un/underemployed

January 30, 2015

Virginia Hamilton is using +Acumen’s online courses as part of a larger initiative to help workforce agencies across the U.S. be more human-centered in their approaches to helping unemployed and underemployed Americans gain jobs. Her initiative has reached more than 600 people and she is just getting started.


+Acumen first encountered Virginia Hamilton in a rather roundabout way. In August 2015, we noticed a sudden surge in sign-ups for Design Kit: The Course for Human Centered Design coming from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). With a little Google sleuthing, we learned that someone at the DOL had launched a nationwide “Customer-centered Design Challenge” in collaboration with the White House, and they were using our online course as the backbone of the challenge so that workforce agencies across the nation could learn human-centered design.  That someone turned out to be Virginia Hamilton.

Virginia Hamilton has dedicated her career to workforce development issues in America. She is also a seasoned innovator in government (read more) with a passion for figuring out how to create large-scale systems change. Some years ago, Virginia encountered IDEO’s work in human-centered design and become passionate about spreading the concept more broadly. She engaged IDEO in several successful consulting projects, but continued to itch for a way to scale up their adoption.

In 2014, President Obama signed a new law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, that called for state and local workforce agencies to push beyond business as usual and focus on putting customers at the center of government services. Next Virginia stumbled on our free online course, and that was all she needed to get started. She put out a call-to-action for agencies to form teams and sign up for the online course. Teams were assigned workforce coaches to help them through the process, and the winning teams were invited to attend a day-long workshop at the White House where they met senior government leaders including the Deputy Secretary of Labor and White House Chief Technology Officer.

Two iterations of this customer-centered design challenge have engaged more than 600 people across America in transforming the delivery of services for out-of-school youth, job seekers and employers. Because of their success Virginia and her team are working on more iterations of the challenge.

In terms of impact, Virginia says: “all over the country, there’s just story after story of small things that make a big difference in the experience of the customers”.  She cites three examples where customer-centered design has made an impact:

An organization in the central valley of California had already worked with an employer for a few years, but it was only after using customer-centered design that they realized that the employer did not need help with recruitment but with retention. “They’d actually been focusing on the wrong thing for a number of years.”

Another group of non-profits that served as career centers in Tennessee had team members secretly visit each other’s offices to observe services and speak to customers. “At the end of the 2nd day, [one woman] just came home and wept. Even though they thought that they were being super helpful and that they were well-regarded in the community, in fact they were seen as gatekeepers - gatekeepers of information, gatekeepers of services - to a huge population that all needed those services.” The non-profits had to rethink everything they did.

A project in Southern California retooled their campaign for telling employers about their youth summer internships, and within the first week saw 113% increase in the number of employers who were calling them to ask for young people to come work for them.

Virginia’s hope is for customer-centered design to become standard practice in government. “Workforce challenges are complex”, she explains. “It’s not like I want to go into a store and buy a tire and I’m going to walk out with a tire. It’s I want to go in and get a job and I may be told ‘you need to do these other 5 steps’. If people pay attention to the whole customer experience, people are going to walk out feeling like they got the help they needed even if it wasn’t the help they thought they needed when they walked in.”

1 Virginia uses the terms “customer-centered design” and “human-centered design” interchangeably.

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