For millions, access to digital services isn’t a luxury — it’s critical. And their experiences using government websites to find unemployment support, file taxes, apply for student loans, or get assistance with housing, childcare, or food can dramatically affect how they feel about the government.

Every moment an individual interacts with a government service is an opportunity to build their trust, as the Federal Customer Experience Initiative team’s 2020 strategy work has summarized 1. Only 20 percent of U.S. adults report that they trust government “most of the time” or “just about always” 2. Trust in government increases when the digital services people access are reliable, user-friendly, and consistently meet their needs. Customers are on average nine times more likely to trust a government agency if they’re satisfied with its service 3.

How we deliver these services is just as important as what services we provide.

People are accustomed to intuitive, easy-to-use digital experiences in their day-to-day lives, and they increasingly expect the same from federal digital services. But we’re coming up short on digital services that meet the needs of the public.

For example, only six percent of federal websites are rated “good” for mobile performance 4. To help put the issue in perspective, there were approximately 2.5 billion visits to federal websites from mobile phones in 2020 over a 90-day period 5.

The current global pandemic has shown us that access to digital services is more important than ever. Site visits to federal websites increased from 14 billion in 2019 to over 21 billion in 2020 6 as the public flocked online for information, assistance, and guidance.

To improve, we have to take a more holistic look at the fragmented ecosystem of the thousands of federal websites that currently exist, all of which offer different experiences for the public to navigate.

We’re already making important strides forward. The growth of GSA shared tools and services like the U.S. Web Design System, Federalist [now Pages], and have baked-in priorities like accessibility, continuity of experience, and designing for user needs.

Teams like 18F, Centers of Excellence, Lab at OPM, and U.S. Digital Service (USDS) have helped numerous agencies deliver better digital services. Dozens of agencies, including those designated as High Impact Service Providers and coordinated by the OMB Federal Customer Experience Initiative team, have also worked to think more strategically about how they design services with their customers. Together we can rebuild public trust by scaling what works and continuing to invest in the design and technology capabilities of our federal workforce.

The more we use the design system to standardize how we build digital experiences, the more we will improve how the federal web functions. — Civic tech leader Shared during user interview

Designing our way forward, together


The U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) is just one piece of widespread federal efforts to improve the public’s experience of government digital services. Created in 2015, USWDS provides principles, guidance, and code to help federal agencies deliver great digital experiences by making it easier to build accessible, mobile-friendly government websites — which gives the public a more trusted, seamless way to access government digital services.

In order to get there, we need to make good-for-government products (like the design system) an integrated part of agency service delivery. Even given all the benefits the design system provides, only a minority of federal executive branch domains (approximately one out of four) are currently using any design system code in their websites4.

So how can we succeed in supporting agencies to improve their digital services amid the diverse challenges they all face?


In September 2020, the USWDS team brought together researchers, designers, engineers, and policymakers to conduct research across dozens of federal agencies to help support emergency response efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our primary focus was to learn:

  • How are teams dealing with emergency response situations (specifically COVID-19) in terms of their digital communications?

  • What challenges are agencies facing when trying to adopt the design system?

  • How can USWDS continue to grow and help agencies maintain a high level of design maturity across the federal government?

  • How can the design system support other federal efforts to improve customer experience across government?

The research resulted in the release of 11 new and updated components and page templates for emergency response and surfaced a number of ways the design system can continue to support agencies now and into the future, as summarized in this report.

Over 60 individuals across 33 teams shared their stories and first-hand accounts of website implementation and their unique experiences with the design system.

To ensure diverse perspectives were heard, we interviewed:

  • Content managers

  • Designers

  • Engineers

  • Managers

  • Policy analysts

  • Thought-leaders (industry experts, civic tech leaders)

Their experiences, needs, pain points, and bright spots led directly to the development of a future vision for USWDS and helped identify opportunities for its role in supporting improved digital services across government as a whole.

I think the design system is probably the strongest place to spread best practices across government. — Manager


  1. What We Have Learned from Federal Customers in FY20 (January 15, 2021) and Reflection on Federal Customer Experience Efforts in FY20 (January 8, 2021). Retrieved February 9, 2021, from 

  2. Americans’ Views of Government: Low Trust, but Some Positive Performance Ratings. Pew Research Center. (September 14, 2020). Retrieved from 

  3. D’Emidio, T., Greenberg, S., Heidenreich, K., Klier, J., Wagner, J., & Weber, T. (2019). The global case for customer experience in government (Public Sector Practice, Rep.). McKinsey & Company. 

  4. Digital Dashboard. (n.d.). Retrieved January 06, 2021, from  2

  5. The US government’s web traffic. (n.d.). Retrieved January 06, 2021, from 

  6. The US government’s web traffic. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2021, from