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Forest Service: Six months in, checking our assumptions

Rebecca and Michael work here at TTS. Aaron Burk is a Senior Project Manager at the Forest Service and the product owner for this project with the Forest Service.

The Technology Transformation Services has been working with the Forest Service in an effort to move their permitting process online. We’ve previously written about how doing this work in the open can benefit other agencies with permit systems. In this post, we’ll focus on how taking a step back to check your assumptions can reduce the risk that your project will go off course.

Stepping back

After six months of work with the Forest Service, our joint team took a step back to measure our progress and evaluate if we were meeting the needs of our users. We knew that a handful of assumptions from our initial workshops were challenged by our user research, but we didn’t have a clear sense of how that affected our value proposition. We wanted to ensure our goals aligned with what we had heard from users and that we had an updated shared vision for our product.

We asked a colleague to lead us through comparing our initial assumptions with our user research to see if the phases of work we’d planned for vendors were still the best course. We started with our opportunity statement that we heard out of the workshops.

The overarching concern from Forest Service leadership was the need to modernize their public services that facilitate access and connection to public lands.

Our user research showed that even though permits were not difficult to acquire, the legacy systems and processes used by the Forest Service staff created the potential for a negative experience for both the public and the staff. Our team used that research to brainstorm goals for a better permitting system and then prioritized those goals by what they would achieve. For example: making it easier to obtain a permit (permits are more available), which should lead to decreased time to issuance, decreased time to apply and compile application materials, an increase in permit holders, and increased understanding and consistency of the permit process across forests.

Taking a step back through our discovery process allowed us to refine our understanding of the opportunity with the Forest Service and hone our vision for the project.

Existing administrative systems sometimes fail to facilitate responsible use of forest resources and therefore Forest Service staff spend less time on stewardship-oriented business and engaging forest users. This can result in sub-optimal customer satisfaction, a decrease in business, and less of a connection between people and their environment.

By digitizing these systems for the public, Forest Service staff will now be able to focus on their primary job and facilitate access to public lands. We believe this will lead to increased customer satisfaction and more permits.

Taking the time to come to a shared vision after conducting our research helped improve communication across the board. It’s now easier to onboard vendors as they work on various parts of the project and has provided a clear message to Forest Service staff about how this work will positively impact their jobs. Similarly, members of the public who were frustrated with the current process now have a better idea about how it will improve. This exercise reenergized our team and allowed us to realign our goals by visualizing the impact our project could make.

Stepping back to look at the big picture on a regular cadence is a healthy part of the product process. As we build and learn, we sometimes need to change direction based on data, which may require a team to align on a new vision and new metrics. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day when you’re on a delivery schedule so making time for this process on a regular basis helps ensure you will reach your project goals and minimize the risk of getting sidetracked.

This is the second post in a series on our engagement with the Forest Service. Be on the lookout for the third post about what a day in the life of an 18F product owner is like and read the first post here about why discovery research matters for modular procurement.

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