Our country needs a federal government that is capable of dealing with our current problems and ...
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
The Biden administration’s customer experience policy strives for more equitable and efficient services for all and is a clear reflection of what a government designed for the people should be. Putting this vision into practice requires mitigating obstacles that prevent agencies from addressing the root causes of customer experience challenges. Customers would benefit from a collaborative approach that aligns all elements of government with those customers’ perspectives and needs. The Biden administration should invest in a change management strategy that empowers not only customer experience but financial, legal, human resources, data, and technology teams to act in the customer’s interest and targets the root causes of customer experience challenges.
The next phase of improving the federal customer experience should involve building a customer-centric mindset and accountability across every government function. We identified seven key ingredients for accelerating the administration’s customer experience goals—all within agencies’ purview today.
Customer experience leaders should be proud of their work putting this critical federal mission at the forefront of innovative policymaking. But addressing the primary root causes of customer experience challenges requires redesigning government so that it can deliver simple, seamless and secure experiences for all eligible customers. Four bold actions are needed to build a government for the people:
The federal government has entered a new era of customer experience. Though today’s efforts by federal agencies to renew public services build on a decade of reform, recent policy has presented a higher-level vision of simple, seamless and secure customer experiences. This administration’s President’s Management Agenda Vision and the accompanying “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government” define clear goals for equitable delivery to the public and targeted actions to relieve the administrative burden on government’s customers.
But these mandates demand a seismic shift in how government does business: All parts of government must be designed around customers’ lives and needs. Such an approach doesn’t always align with today’s federal organizational charts or processes. And requiring customers to use systems built for the convenience of government has led to frustration and lesser service quality for the very people government is meant to serve–all of us. “We now need to align our programs, technologies and systems to the customer journey, and not align the customer to our systems,” said Andy Lewandowski, Digital Experience Advisor to the Federal CIO in the Office of Management and Budget.
In our fourth annual Government for the People report, the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services focus on agencies’ readiness for these new policies centering the customer, specifically the requirement to “systematically [identify] and [resolve] the root causes of customer experience challenges.” In other words, what are the key ingredients that enable agencies to design and deliver from a customer’s perspective, and not their own?
A critical requirement for the administration’s vision is to expand the collaborative customer-centric mindset to all agency functions. As agencies collect and analyze data, modernize technology, perform legal reviews and conduct other essential activities, they need to align these systems with how customers live their lives. Teams performing all agency functions—not only customer experience teams—should be accountable for helping people become aware of the services they are eligible for and making it quick and easy for all possible customers to receive those services.
This collective effort can only happen when government offices and agencies coordinate in fundamentally new ways. To illustrate this approach, this report:
For this report, we interviewed dozens of of customer experience leaders, as well as those who design and implement services at federal agencies. We also had conversations with customer experience experts from national research institutes and universities. Additionally, our work was informed by input from our quarterly customer experience roundtables and by leading commercial practices.
Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
“The means of government … must work to achieve the ends,” according to the Biden administration’s executive order on customer experience. This directive sets the expectation that “on-the-ground results for the people of the United States” are the responsibility of not only those charged specifically with designing and delivering federal services, but also the management and operational “means” …. its budget, policy, financial management, procurement and human resources practices.”
This raised bar builds on a decade of targeted customer experience reform. Many agencies have already invested in their own customer experience capacity. The dividends from these investments became apparent during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic as agencies demonstrated the ability to serve customers even as businesses and offices shut down. But a critical ingredient to their success was the coordinated effort of those outside the core customer experience community–lawyers, financial officers, HR managers, and more—to rapidly support customer experience innovations. As bureaucracies work to mitigate the effects of crises, they are pushed to experiment, take risks and become more customer-centric.
The customer experience community wondered how this crisis-driven, enterprise-wide approach would continue when the pandemic wound down. The President’s Management Agenda Vision and executive order on customer experience sets broad expectations. It also offers specific initiatives for improving collaboration on design and delivery. Key among them is the formulation of the “life experience” organizing framework that cuts across multiple programs or agencies.
A government designed for the people is one that strives for more equitable and efficient services for all. To get there, agencies must take a collaborative, human-centered approach. But, given the baggage of decades of government-centric design, putting this vision into practice has been hindered by a range of people, process and technology gaps that prevent agencies from addressing the root causes of the customer experience challenges.
Collaborative efforts to build seamless customer experiences are important for individual programs as well as for the administration’s cross-cutting life experience projects. They also contribute to the government’s goal of reducing administrative burden and improving equity for underserved customers.
But the “whole of government” approach sought by advocates of collaboration is too often praised as an end in itself, without an articulation of its purpose. Collaboration demands time and resources and requires leadership-buy in. To be successful in customer experience, this approach requires a substantial change management strategy and serious investment across all functions of government–and will generate significant benefit to customers.
With millions of people out of work and behind on rental and mortgage payments, Congress and executive branch agencies acted quickly to provide billions in aid for rent, utilities, mortgage relief, and other housing costs, as well as a range of consumer protections. CFPB spearheaded a multi-agency comprehensive online resource to serve as a unified source of up-to-date information on and access to relief options, protections and key deadlines for customers. In such a crisis, this was no small feat—customers were under significant stress. Relief programs were either new or changing rapidly, and responding agencies were coping with historic requirements for delivering assistance.
To be successful, CFPB needed regular access to the right mix of multi-agency experts who could create a responsive and accessible resource for consumers in crisis and make decisions rapidly. “[Our] team included subject matter experts across a range of disciplines at the Bureau and gathered them together to discuss and respond in as close to real time as possible,” said Per Olstad, a senior advisory at the CFPB. “We had experts from stakeholder management, regulations, technology, design and development, our legal division working together to review content, as well as our mortgage markets team and consumer response team – all there in one virtual room, nearly every day through the peak of the pandemic.”
From our interviews with customer experience experts across and outside government, we learned how successful collaborative efforts on the customer experience front benefit the public in six specific ways. When agencies are unable to provide these benefits, agency senior leaders should task cross-organizational teams to explore the root causes that prevent them from doing so, using “the five whys” or other comparable methodologies.
Customers benefit when agencies collect, access and act on the full range of available customer insights–whether from research teams, community engagement leaders, front-line staff who hear directly from customers or external experts who can offer a deeper picture of customer needs.
Five Whys Sample Questions
Customers benefit when agencies proactively identify and communicate eligibility for services that are relevant to their needs–relying on holistic data management; data scientists with intelligent systems that can gather, analyze and respond to data; customer-centric legal structures; and customer-informed communications.
Customers benefit when agencies streamline program eligibility processes so customers receive resources when they can make best use of them–seamless customer service is possible when agencies proactively “connect the dots” for their customers.
Customers benefit when agencies ensure all audiences understand the services they are eligible for, relying on strong community engagement and diverse experience and perspective among communication specialists as well as relationships with trusted partners.
Customers benefit when agencies create consistent, reliable experiences across all available customer channels—and such an “omnichannel” experience requires goal-driven collaboration across customer contact channels, data infrastructure and communication.
Customers benefit when agencies design services inclusively to reflect the diverse experience of all eligible customers. Designing services this way requires a group effort: researchers who partner with underrepresented groups, program designers who come from the communities they serve, a wide array of translators, legal experts committed to accessibility, specialists in trauma-informed care and communication and other contributors.
The administration’s vision of seamless and equitable customer experience is refreshingly ambitious. Its pursuit of the customer “life experience” projects and investment in popular service improvements—such as the State Department’s online passport renewal pilot–shows its commitment to making progress for customers.
But many agencies face barriers to making this collaborative vision materialize. “We have found all kinds of approaches to navigating barriers that are all permissible, and tailored to use-cases as they arise, but for a variety of reasons those approaches are not scalable,” one long-time customer experience expert said. And while customer experience teams have heavily invested in customer research, they need backing from across their agencies to move from this discovery phase to launching solutions. The next phase of federal customer experience must emphasize the change management necessary to shift from a culture of workarounds to a customer-centric mindset across every government function. This mindset should be accompanied by agencywide accountability for delivering solutions for customers. In our research, we identified seven key ingredients necessary for accelerating the administration’s customer experience goals—all within agencies’ purview today:
The administration’s customer experience approach has generated substantial senior leadership buy-in and, with it, top cover. Based on the responsibilities assigned in the President’s Management Agenda and customer experience executive order, “to deliver a government that works for all Americans, it’s essential for OMB and department and agency leadership teams to work together,” said Noreen Hecmanczuk, Strategic Advisor to the Federal CIO at the Office of Management and Budget. “Through these partnerships, we can identify opportunities for agencies to connect their people, policies, processes, and data to deliver a customer experience that is simple, seamless, and secure.” Critically, deputy secretaries are regularly reporting progress on their customer experience work within the President’s Management Council.
However, seamless customer experience cannot be built on policies assigning customer experience leadership responsibilities on paper. For many leaders, approaching agency missions from the perspective of customer benefit is new, and in most agencies, customer experience functions are not well-integrated into the organization’s priorities. Leaders may need support from staff to be true champions of customer success. Agencies customer experience teams making the most of their senior leadership’s ability to drive change are:
“CX can’t just be one of those siloed functions—and leadership is realizing that it’s needed across all functions.”
—Abena Apau, Customer Experience Officer, Farm Production and Conservation, USDA.
Customer experience teams are also empowered by offices that control key agency functions. “Back-end” elements, like technology, data, human capital, and legal counsel can make or break collaborative customer experience approaches. The significant responsibilities the president’s executive order places on agencies to understand customers and reduce administrative burden should be embedded in agency operations, with accountability across the C-suite. Toward that end, agencies should prioritize:
Teams at the center of government—such the OMB office of the federal chief information security officer or the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—can also play a critical role in establishing customer-centric policy and templates for agency teams to access and apply consistently.
“We want service providers to be purposeful with their qualitative data. When we do in-depth interviews with customer experience stakeholders, they mention hearing all these wonderful anecdotes, but it’s often left with that one stakeholder trying to retell that story. Those stories must be transcribed, analyzed and shared—it can’t be all on the shoulders of one individual to amplify.”
—Senior Customer Experience Official, USDA
“Stories are vital to get the attention of changemakers…. Stories are critical to helping agencies think beyond just their part of the elephant…to the whole customer journey.”
—Kimberlyn Leary, Senior Vice President, Urban Institute
Agencies are increasingly listening to their customers and learning about their needs. Customer insights, whether from surveys, congressional caseworkers, complaints or ethnographic research, are vital tools to inform agency investments, regulatory policy and communications strategy. But not all agencies can act on what they learn. Many lack the capacity for compiling and sharing customer insights with the people who need them most–whether front-line staff, lawyers or web designers—in a way that resonates with them. A frequent challenge for customer experience offices is data going to waste. Interviews are not transcribed or shared; complaints reside in silos; or surveys get shared in charts instead of stories. To make sure their customer data is useable and acted on, agencies should prioritize investments in three areas:
“Good government is about taking the data we already have [and sharing it appropriately across agencies] instead of putting the work on citizens to provide their data multiple times to multiple agencies.”
—Ken Corbin, Chief Taxpayer Experience Officer, Internal Revenue Service
Programs that deliver federal services rely on an accurate understanding of customers, and most federal programs share customers—but not their data. The burden of providing even the most basic data typically lands on customers. Customer experience teams operate in a data-sharing environment that is not highly developed, either within or across departments. Data sharing is hindered by many factors, such as general confusion or misperception about what data programs are allowed to share or inconsistent interpretations of the Privacy Act that protects that data. “Eight different agencies can have eight different interpretations of the Privacy Act regarding what can be shared and how it can be shared,” one federal customer experience expert said.
Federal agencies—and their state-level counterparts—often lack clear, authoritative data sharing policy and occasionally seek out one-off waivers from Congress that result in inconsistent, temporary solutions. “Any small steps that are made [around data sharing] are these agency-to-agency or program-to-program relationships, or decisions that are made, so a specific individual from a specific office is pushing for a particular agreement,” said Emily Tavoulareas, managing chair of Georgetown University’s Tech & Society Initiative.
While many of these challenges require government-wide or congressional action, agencies can drive change by:
“We’d like to be at a point where a representative in the VA education benefits contact center not only knows the customer’s education benefits history, but also has information available regarding that customer’s interaction with other VA benefits and services… to work towards one VA through the eyes of our Veteran community. The omnichannel experience is something we must enable behind the scenes through data sharing, through robotic process automation, and other ways to connect our people and systems.”
Nathan SanFilippo, executive director of multi-channel technology, Department of Veterans Affairs
Seamless customer experience means customers receive consistent access and service quality whether they contact an agency via a contact center, field office, app or other channel—the “omnichannel” experience. This outcome depends on a digital backbone that centers around the customer’s needs. Recent research from Accenture shows that less than 10% of public sector customers believe they can start an interaction in one channel and continue in another without starting over. As agencies modernize their technology, it is critical that “no matter where they are on that journey, the number one thing they need to do is align their work to the way customers actually experience their services in real life,” Lewandowski said. If back-end digital systems cannot synchronize with one another, that can frustrate efforts to deliver connected and consistent services. An approach that delivers services in this way requires:
“People across the customer experience space (and beyond) need much more rigorous understanding of the ways that their work can reinforce trauma—bring it up, create, recreate trauma, be unnecessarily invasive and more.”
– Senior Research and Design Official, Office of Personnel Management
Partnering with trusted community organizations makes it easier for agencies to understand the diverse needs and situations of people eligible for government services. It also broadens the agencies’ reach and makes it easier to tailor messaging to specific demographic groups.
However, developing and sustaining long-term partnerships with groups outside government can be challenging. Limited government resources and a lack of dedicated staff to work on partnerships are among the most obvious ones. But sensitive historical relationships with government, and staff turnover, whether in government or the outside groups, can disrupt existing relationships and prevent new ones from being formed.
Despite these difficulties, many agencies have long engaged community partners to improve how they manage government services in local communities or, in the case of the Transportation Security Administration, in airports. Many people need extra help or information to get through the screening process. “We are trying to do everything that we can to reach these groups,” said Niki French, TSA’s customer service branch manager. The agency holds quarterly community engagement calls and regularly sends out newsletters to help strengthen relationships between the agency and its partners—tools that other agencies could replicate. The agency also seeks to bolster relationships among the partners themselves, to build a stronger network of organizations serving people with diverse needs.
Successful external partnerships require:
“A benefit application ought to meet the people using it where they are. In Code for America’s work on the social safety net, one of our teams encountered a benefit application that took over an hour to fill out, without the ability to save, and observed an unsheltered person unsuccessfully attempting to apply from a public library where the internet sessions timed out after 30 minutes. That benefit application did not meet its intended user, and thus failed to serve them.”
–Ryan Ko, Chief of Staff, Code for America
Partnering with community organizations makes it easier for agencies to understand the diverse needs and situations of people eligible for government services. It also broadens the agencies’ reach and enables agencies to more effectively tailor messaging to specific demographic groups.
An integral part of building equitable services is to design them not for, but with the communities being served. Many agencies’ customer experience professionals are familiar with these approaches and are incorporating them into their practices. However, they will not work without resources and agencywide buy-in. Effective, inclusive co-design requires that all stakeholders involved have the mindset that they will work together, both across the design process and with all design partners—which can include digital, communications and policy teams and others.
Designing with the people who use a service, rather than for them, is especially important when it comes to serving historically disadvantaged communities in an equitable way. In these cases, co-design is critical, as is getting internal buy-in for both the practice and follow-through of co-design. Good practices include hearing from customers and taking into consideration:
“Our design researchers conducted in-depth interviews with members of our three different audiences. Each open-ended conversation made sure that we got a full view of what people were struggling with, what they said they wanted, and what they actually needed. We then created prototypes for our website, knowing that over 80% of traffic to our pages was coming on mobile devices. After that, we conducted usability testing to check that the webpage interactions and content were easily understood by our audiences. Getting insights and anonymous quotes from actual people impacted was very helpful for the entire team to understand what we were solving for and why we were moving in certain directions.”
– Naa Marteki Reed, Senior Product Management Specialist, CFPB
Photo credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Customer experience leaders should be proud of their progress: Despite statutory and resource constraints, this critical federal mission is at the forefront of administration priorities and innovative policymaking. Ultimately, however, much of government structure and regulation was not designed with customers in mind—the primary root cause of most customer experience challenges. Designing and implementing customer solutions within this government-centric framework will always be a challenge. Administration, agency and congressional leaders must work together to redesign a government that is capable of not just understanding all its customers’ needs but also of building solutions for them and being accountable for how well those customers’ needs are met. Building a government for the people requires that our government takes bold action in four areas.
To meet the moment on customer experience, agencies—with the support of OMB and Congress—must fully fund and hire the talent needed to make our government customer-centric. The customer experience executive order and life experience framework need funding to support them over the long term. Personnel needs are frequently being filled with what one customer experience leader described as “bubble gum and scotch tape”—temporary solutions such as bringing in people on detail under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and relying on extra capacity provided by innovation teams working on but not dedicated to improving customers’ experiences with government.
To make a collaborative customer experience approach possible, Congress and the executive branch must fully and flexibly fund federal customer experience with the customer’s perspective in mind. Agencies often have a siloed picture of their overall customer experience budgets, given the separate budget lines for individual programs. Program offices may be reluctant to, or even prohibited from, investing jointly in a seamless customer experience. Services designed with the customer in mind must be funded with the customer in mind, which is not the state of play today. But service-providing agencies, OMB and Congress can still make progress through the following actions.
To deliver customer-centric services, the executive branch and Congress must enable agencies to share common customer data in a secure environment. This demands a new approach to customer data that prioritizes enterprise solutions, not temporary workarounds. The federal government should recognize that it is not only possible but vital to both embrace customer data protections and reduce the administrative burden on customers—but doing so will take bold action, investment and a willingness to consider innovative approaches. Recommended actions:
To design services prioritizing the public, much of today’s customer experience statutory and regulatory foundation may need to be redesigned. A truly seamless approach to customers’ life experiences—like experiencing a disaster or managing financial insecurity—is likely impossible without a rewiring of policy architecture and the oversight infrastructure that comes with it. But until such fundamental reforms are realized, smaller-scale redesigns could go a long way to improving the public’s relationship with the government. Recommended improvements:
Ideally, the customer experience in government would rival the best of the private sector’s efforts, and we have outlined many ways for government to move in that direction. These actions put them on a path to meet that expectation and the commitment and promise of a government for the people.
Nadzeya Shutava works on several of the Partnership’s research projects, including the improvement of customer experience with federal services, leadership in government, as well as public opinion and government. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a focus on political science, ethnography and social anthropology from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Nadzeya is passionate about bringing academic research and public service practice closer together and believes in the potential of evidence-based policy making. Her favorite public servant is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who inspires Nadzeya with her charisma and relatability, both skillfully amplified through social media, and her talent of effectively communicating complex issues to broad audiences.
Loren leads the Partnership’s efforts to develop forward-thinking solutions that change the way government works and evaluate our impact. She began her career in public service as a Presidential Management Fellow and devoted ten years at the Department of Defense and National Security Council to building networks and ideas for problems only the government can solve. For the last five years she has led research efforts at the Center for a New American Security to elevate the national security debate and prepare the national security leaders of today and tomorrow. Her favorite public servants are former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who understood how America’s innovation was a foundation to its security, and former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, who declared that when it came to the Constitution she would not be an idle spectator.
Sarah crafts and manages research projects that aim to understand how government services can keep attuned to the dynamic and diverse needs of the public. Prior to joining the Partnership she co-led a number of Customer Experience projects that highlight ways government can more tightly align services to Veterans’ needs. Her research practice is shaped by ethnography and human centered design. Her favorite public servant is the late Representative John Lewis who imagined and brought into being a more just and democratic society.
CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Farm Production and Conservation
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
Federal Student Aid
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
USCIS External Affairs Directorate, Office of Citizenship and Applicant Information Services
Transportation Security Administration
DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT
OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET
Noreen M. Hecmanczuk
OFFICE OF PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT
THE LAB at OPM
DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY
Internal Revenue Service
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
Veterans Experience Office
CODE FOR AMERICA
THE GEORGETOWN INITIATIVE ON TECH&SOCIETY
Header photo credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security