Farm Loan and Conservation Services This customer experience profile is from 2020. To view this year’s profile, click here. User Interactions Customer Feedback Social Media Presence Customer Experience Indicators Executive Summary Recognizing the vital role agricultural producers’ play in feeding people across the country, USDA is taking steps to understand and improve how farmers and ranchers experience its services. In 2018, the department launched a new mission area called Farm Production and Conservation—bringing together three USDA agencies that assist farmers, ranchers and other stewards of private agricultural lands. The FPAC Business Center, a centralized operations agency within the new mission area, streamlines systems, policies, procedures and practices to deliver programs to customers effectively and efficiently. According to research conducted by the FPAC mission area, customers value personalized interactions with highly trained field office representatives—often farmers themselves—who tailor services to meet producers’ specific needs. Still, many customers need a more convenient way to access farm loan and conservation services digitally, such as through self-service capabilities offered on Farmers.gov. Our analysis found the website to be well-designed, with intuitive tools and digestible content that enable customers to conduct a range of business activities such as viewing loan information, requesting conservation support or applying for program benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption within FPAC of digital platforms, enabling USDA field offices to focus on more complex customer interactions. To further improve the customer experience with farm loan and conservation services, agricultural producers would like the organization to streamline the application and reporting processes to avoid redundancy. Customers would also like faster decision-making and reduced processing times for loans and other program applications—an issue the mission area has started to make progress on. Data at a Glance More than 32,000 farm loans delivered in fiscal 2019 More than 500,000 farmers have received conservation services More than 800,000 visits to Farmers.gov in fiscal 2019 “As a 5th generation farmer who’s been engaged with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 20 years, I know how important it is to walk into a field office and be welcomed by someone who is happy to assist you, and willing to go out into the field and discuss your concerns. That’s why customer experience is a top priority for me.” Former chief of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service “Nearly everything we do from a customer experience perspective is about finding out how producers feel about and use our insurance policies.” Administrator of the Risk Management Agency More Profiles Airport Security Screening and Passenger Support Services Citizenship and Immigration Applicant Services Customs Airport Security and Screening Services Farm Loan and Conservation Service Federal Student Aid Individual Taxpayer Services Medicare Customer Support Services Outdoor Recreation Reservations for Federal Lands Passport Services Veterans Education and Training Benefits Veterans Outpatient Health Care Services Service Overview Primary Customers Agricultural producers, including farmers, ranchers, foresters, specialty growers, tribes and tribal governments. Customers range in age, farming experience and the type of farm they operate. Key services related to farm loan and conservation services (data for fiscal 2019) The Farm Production and Conservation mission area delivers services through three agencies: Farm Service Agency, which provides direct farm loans up to $600,000 and guaranteed loans up to $1.75 million.1 32,343 loans distributed, totaling $5.7 billion in direct and guaranteed farm loans. Direct and guaranteed loan assistance to “beginning farmers” totaled $2.7 billion. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which provides consultations and financial assistance. Consultation services offered by local service centers to help producers with their natural resource management and conservation practices, ranging from natural resources assessments to expertise and advice on how to protect water and air quality. More than 500,000 customers served, helping to boost agricultural productivity.2 98,090 conservation plans developed for producers to implement on more than 31 million acres. Financial assistance programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that help producers protect natural resources and the environment. 56,887 contracts for financial assistance programs, totaling $1.7 billion in payments to producers. 140,000 contracts awarded to help agricultural producers implement conservation practices on more than 92 million acres of land. Risk Management Agency, which mitigates farming risks by developing policies on crop insurance and regulating insurance that private entities offer to agricultural producers. Conducted more than 300 listening sessions with customers in the past two years to elicit feedback to inform new policies. FPAC delivers online services through Farmers.gov and the Conservation Client Gateway, both of which customers use to manage individual accounts, submit signed documents and access services. People Interact With USDA By (All data for fiscal year 2019) VISITING ONLINE 800,000+ visits to Farmers.gov3 (227,117 in fiscal 2018) CALLING OR VISITING A LOCAL SERVICE CENTER 2,450+ service centers across the country Customer Experience Insights Click tabs to expand Customers value a highly personalized service delivery approach. Because farmers who seek help from USDA have different needs and situations, field staff members are trained to provide tailored services and build personal relationships. They recognize that some producers may want frequent and in-depth support, while others only want to contact the agency when applying for a loan. Many USDA employees have farming backgrounds, which may help create a strong sense of empathy and trust with customers. Walk a Mile A state conservationist working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho used an undercover boss approach to visit a service center. By posing as a customer, he was able to gauge staff members' level of subject matter knowledge and how they greeted producers. He also experienced the process of applying for a service as a customer would, noting that field employees seemed to be well-trained, knowledgeable and friendly. However, he noted room for improvement around redundancy of the forms that need to be completed. Farmers.gov receives high marks for its user-friendly design. Farmers.gov is USDA’s central website for providing farmers, ranchers and producers with information and tools, and a critical part of the agency’s customer service strategy. Selected pages on the site earned an A for their well-organized layout, effectively designed features and clear content, according to our analysis. Staff members use customer research and input from employees and producers to further refine the website, identifying new features and improvements. Click to see full results of our website experience analysis Website Experience: How easy is it to navigate and understand online information? Reviewers looked at the pages from the perspective of people seeking to answer two questions: What USDA farm loan options are available to me? https://www.farmers.gov/fund/farm-loan-discovery-tool http://www.farmers.gov/fund How can USDA help me improve my soil? https://www.farmers.gov/conserve https://www.farmers.gov/conserve/soil-health USDA Grade A Strengths Well-designed pages optimized for a good user experience across all levels of technological proficiency. Range of design elements that are helpful for users – for example, content that can be expanded or collapsed. Definitions of terms and “advanced organizer” at the beginning of pages that summarizes content so users can find information they need. Text presented in ways that make it easy to find answers quickly. Content without jargon or complex words, making it easy to understand, even for users outside of agriculture. Standout feature: The Farm Loan Discovery Tool The easy-to-use tool for identifying loan options walks the customer through a sequence of steps in a clear and structured way. After going through the Farm Loan Discovery Tool’s well-designed questions and responses, users are presented with clear results based on their needs. Pages start with an advanced organizer of content to guide the user (https://www.farmers.gov/fund) The results page of the Farm Loan Discovery Tool directs the user to the loan application, additional resources and nearest USDA Service Center. (https://www.farmers.gov/fund/farm-loan-discovery-tool) USDA is working to improve loan processing times and streamline conservation services. Average Direct Loan Processing Time4 2017 2018 2019 Number of days 31 30 32 In 2019, direct farm loans took 32 days to process, on average, while applications for conservation programs that require in-depth eligibility reviews usually took about a year. Customers would like faster decisions to speed up loan processing times, according to agency staff members. To streamline conservation services, a Natural Resources Conservation Service team is rolling out a remote-sensing tool that assesses whether a farmer’s land is susceptible to erosion and therefore would require the farmer to develop a conservation plan. This process, which was previously done manually, examines the Earth’s surface and automatically generates forms, maps and reports—saving two-and-a-half hours per land determination and translating to 53 years of staff work saved annually.5 “Developing new technologies doesn’t mean we ignore the opportunity to go out into the field with a customer. In fact, it provides a great opportunity to educate our customers and build trusting relationships with them by sharing how we arrived at the decision of the determination.” — Curtis Elke, State Conservationist, NRCS Idaho Streamlined application and reporting processes would reduce redundancy for customers. When applying for more than one program or service, producers are often required to provide some of the same information numerous times for each agency, leading to redundant paper forms. To address this, FPAC started providing customers with digital options, so they could complete common business transactions online, such as applications for multiple FSA and NRCS programs. “Agriculture is a very high-tech industry, with some farmers using autonomous and satellite-guided tractors. Customers expect to be able to use virtual and digital platforms.” —Richard Fordyce, administrator of the Farm Service Agency Updated information technology and digital tools are helping to improve service to customers. For example, customers can start program applications on new web portals such as Farmers.gov. Up until recently, however, the Farm Service Agency required original signatures on forms during the farm loan closing process in some local or state jurisdictions, forcing many customers to drive long distances to service centers just to sign and submit forms. The agency was able to largely address this issue during the pandemic by providing customers online resources to access, sign and share documents. Leadership from all three agencies acknowledged there was still room for improvement in meeting customer demands for better information technology. More about Farmers.gov Customers can log in and take actions related to their business with Farm Production and Conservation, such as checking the payment date or outstanding balance of a Farm Service Agency loan or e-signing documents related to their contracts with Natural Resources Conservation Service. On the back end, federal employees in county offices can log in and complete actions to serve customers, including completing applications and providing receipts for the services provided. The web team rolls out new online tools every few months to address common customer needs. More than 4.6 million customer interactions as of the summer of 2020. Connecting on Social Media The USDA social media team uses Facebook and Twitter to educate and engage customers about topics ranging from the latest research on sustainable water irrigation practices to events and webinars on the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The team also makes announcements on financial and technical assistance opportunities, program application and enrollment deadlines, and new products and services, such as the Farm Loan Discovery Tool, which helps customers understand which loan is right for them. USDA also shares personal stories about customers they serve on these accounts. As of September 2020, USDA’s social media presence included: Twitter (@USDA) Followers: 666,500 Total tweets: 19,500 Facebook (@USDA) Followers: 441,300 Total likes: 420,000 Instagram (@USDAgov) Followers: 74,300 Total posts: 704 YouTube (USDA) Subscribers: 17,400 Total views: 3 million Social media practices Posts almost daily?No Responds to customers?No Includes multimedia content?Yes For background information on these metrics and our full methodology click here. Adjusting Services During the Coronavirus Pandemic With plummeting prices for crops and livestock, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and concerns about the safety of farm workers, the agricultural community took a hard hit from the coronavirus pandemic.3 To support producers, USDA launched several new programs, including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to producers who lost 5% or more of their crops due to disruptions brought about by the virus.4 Adjusting services during the pandemic required a culture shift for USDA, which largely relies on a highly personalized, face-to-face service delivery model. One agency leader estimated that about 90% of the staff had never teleworked before. To maintain services, the agency had to adjust its traditional in-person approach when most staff could no longer go to an office, and it had to find new ways to build trusted relationships and deliver timely, convenient services. With field offices closed to the public and operated by fewer staff members, employees quickly pivoted to assisting customers by phone or on an appointment-only basis. Over the course of several months, the agency continued to serve customers in need. They reduced the number of forms required for coronavirus-related relief programs and adopted new digital tools for secure online file sharing, electronic signatures on select forms and applications and videoconferencing, which helped facilitate farm loan application and closing processes. Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority Click buttons to expand. Commitment to Customer Experience The Agency: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Yes Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. No USDA’s strategic plan includes measures around the timeliness of services to customers, but not a measure based on customer feedback. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization. Yes Shares meaningful customer feedback data with the public. No USDA is currently working on publishing customer feedback in alignment with OMB requirements. Customer Service Basics For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete frequently used transactions online. Partially Customers can view their loans, start many application processes online and complete many tasks on Farmers.gov, but some programs require original signatures or visits to service centers to submit forms. As a result of the pandemic, the agency began to accept online signatures and adopt secure file-sharing for multiple programs. Easily find information to call an appropriate USDA representative. Yes Schedule in-person appointments. Partially The process for scheduling appointments varies by service center; some offices allow customers to call ahead to schedule, while other offices only allow walk-ins. Obtain status updates. Partially Through a new feature on Farmers.gov, some but not all agricultural producers can view loan information, history, and payments for USDA farm loans. Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels. Partially The organization has standardized content and responses to some frequent questions and is looking to do more. Customer Feedback The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions: Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments. Yes Of a customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal. Yes For example, the organization has mapped the full customer journey of applying for a farm loan. Of the overall service the organization provides. Yes Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation. Yes Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels. Yes More details about our methodology Footnotes and Methodology Footnotes 1 Farm Service Agency, “2018 Farm Bill Increases Limits and Makes Other Changes to Farm Loans,” April 2019. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3hDE61t 2 Natural Resources Conservation Service Performance Data, 2019. 3 This site was first launched in 2018 and visits have continued to grow since then, with about 2 million visits in the first half of 2020. 4 USDA Budget Explanatory Notes, Farm Service Agency, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2RkGjnP 5 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, eDirectives, “NB 180-19-11 CPA – Release and Availability of the Highly Erodible Land Determination Tool,” September 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3bXIoPK 6 Time, “American Farmers Were Already Hurting. Now the Coronavirus Slowdown Might Do Them,” April 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3mn59lf 7 https://www.farmers.gov/coronavirus 8 Because USDA manages multiple social media accounts, metrics were pulled for the most active account for each platform. The other accounts include: @USDAFSA, @USDA_NRCS, and @Farmers.gov for Twitter; @USDA.NRCS and @FarmersGov for Facebook; @USDAgov, @USDA_nrcs and @FarmersGov for Instagram; and TheUSDANRCS and FarmersGov for YouTube. Social media review methodology To assess how agencies use social media to interact with customers, we examined three social media best practices identified through conversations with experts: posting frequently, delivering engaging content and responding to questions. We analyzed the most active Facebook or Twitter account by selecting specific months to examine trends throughout the year, including changes to social media activity during the coronavirus. The team defined posting almost daily as meaning the agency posted for at least 25 out of 30 days on average in September 2019, December 2019, March 2020 and May 2020. Includes multimedia content is defined as whether the agency posted a range of multimedia content with interactive elements beyond just static images. Responds to customers is defined as whether or not agencies respond to questions through the direct message feature on Facebook or in the comment section of posts. To assess this, we examined September 2019, December 2019 and April 2020 (or another month when data was not available). “No” indicates the agency never or rarely responds to comments; “Yes – occasionally” indicates the agency responds sometimes, but there does not appear to be a consistent pattern over time; and “Yes – regularly” indicates the agency responds to comments on a frequent and consistent basis over time. The number of tweets, likes, posts and views reflect the total activity since the social media account was established. Website experience methodology For each agency, we selected for review a set of webpages that customers would theoretically visit to seek answers to frequently asked questions, vetted with each agency. We partnered with the Center for Plain Language to conduct this review. The center followed the same methodology it uses to assess plain language for its annual ClearMark awards for a range of organizations and its annual Federal Plain Language Report Card for the government. Two plain-language experts individually and independently reviewed and scored each set of pages, using five plain-language criteria to assess each site. They rated each criterion on a five-point scale: Information design and navigation. Pictures, graphics and charts. Style or voice. Structure and content. Understanding of audience. The reviewers then met to reach consensus on strengths and weaknesses of each site and to assign a letter grade based on their ratings. Customer experience indicators methodology The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of indicators to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Leaders who participated in the Partnership’s federal customer experience roundtable provided input. Commitment to customer experience The agency: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Criteria: 1) customer experience with the agency’s services is listed in the strategic plan as one of the organization’s top priorities or a supporting goal of one of the priorities 2) the strategic plan provides specific actions the agency will take to improve customer experience. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. Criteria: There is a performance measure included in the agency’s strategic plan, annual performance report or agency priority goals that is based on feedback directly from customers Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: 1) customer experience is his or her primary responsibility 2) he or she reports to the head of the organization or a deputy 3) his or her work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services). Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, the agency publishes customer feedback that: 1) represents multiple service delivery channels 2) provides details into different aspects of the experience (e.g., beyond overall customer satisfaction) Customer Service Basics For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete online frequently used transactions.Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can complete major services or transactions online. Easily find information to call an appropriate representative.Criteria: Does the agency’s website provide a clear explanation of which number to call for specific issues or provide one number that customers can call to get routed to the appropriate person. Schedule in-person appointments. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can schedule appointments for in-person services. Obtain status updates.Criteria: Customers can get current updates through an online or self-service channel that includes estimated timelines on items such as submitted applications or benefit disbursements. Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels. Criteria: At least two service delivery channels have integrated knowledge management systems so that when content for customers on one channel is updated, it is updated on the other channel. Customer Feedback The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions: Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls, and in-person appointments. Of the customer journey through a series of interactions or multi-stage processes that build toward a specific goal. Of the service provided by the organization overall. Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups or direct observation. Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels. This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.