Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
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:
- Empowered leadership.
- An engaged and accountable agency enterprise.
- Knowledge Mobilization for Customer Solutions.
- Comprehensive data-sharing policy infrastructure.
- Digital enterprise backbone for a consistent customer experience.
- External partnerships for expert knowledge and trusted communication.
- Co-design of services with customers.
1. Empowered leadership
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:
- Supporting agency leadership efforts to both set agency-wide performance expectations for customer experience and also require inclusion of customer experience metrics in individual leader performance plans across the enterprise.
- Giving senior agency leaders the opportunity to directly connect with both front-line employees and customers.
- Staffing deputy secretary offices with advisors responsible for collaborative customer experience efforts, facilitating the deputy’s line of sight across the agencies’ customer experience activities.
Barbara C. Morton says complex, cross-agency coordinated efforts—like synchronizing backend systems to create a seamless VA digital experience for Veterans on va.gov and the VA mobile app — are enabled and catalyzed when top leadership sets customer experience as a top priority: “We have Customer Experience as an agency measure of performance, as well as an individual measure of performance. This multi-pronged approach keeps us all focused on the same goal, which is keeping the Veteran at the center of everything we do.”
2. An engaged and accountable agency enterprise
“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:
- Agencywide guidance to streamline the approvals needed for repeat customer experience-related tasks–like data sharing or customer research–and find solutions in favor of the customer’s benefit in bureaucratic stalemates. For example, decisions relevant to removing administrative burden on customer applications or renewals should be weighted in support of customer outcomes.
- Creating accountability for the customer experience across the agency, including expectations that:
- Chief financial officers are empowered to realign agency resources with customer experience priorities.
- Chief information officers prioritize customer-driven digital services, including user experience research for underserved populations.
- General counsels consistently prioritize customer outcomes in legal reviews and advice to program managers.
- Human capital teams prioritize timely hiring of skilled customer experience talent.
- Establishing agile teams with a blend of expertise to facilitate designing and implementing customer solutions.
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
|Crisis-driven enterprise solutions—such as in the Uniting for Ukraine program at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—can provide lessons for customer experience. USCIS offices across agency functions formed an agile team to create a pathway for Ukrainians seeking to resettle in the United States. “Everybody is on the same page,” said one senior USCIS official. “We are laser-focused on this initiative … the case managers, the attorneys, policy staff, everyone understands the priority. By having that alignment and agreement, we can get things done.” In a week’s time, the team created a form that displaced Ukrainians in the United States could use to apply for a temporary stay. More than 100,000 people from Ukraine have since used it to file for a stay.
3. Mobilizing Insights for Customer Solutions
“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:
- Knowledge mobilization:
- Require teams to record the widest range of customer feedback from across channels; for example, consolidating data from qualitative interviews and surveys or around common customer groups across different programs.
- Help front line staff and leaders across the agency understand customer pain points —sharing not only what is important to customers, but why.
- Provide access to modern digital platforms that enable rapid, timely analysis and decision-making.
- Customer insights accountability:
- Connect customers’ pain points encounter with the root causes of customer experience challenges across the whole agency.
- Track action on customer insights and responding directly to their feedback through closed loop feedback systems.
- Rapid prototyping: Speed the pace at which discovery research on the customer experience is used to design, test and implement improvements.
|The Veterans Health Administration uses human-centered design research to identify the top pain points for its customers. Analysts use the data to map customer insights against these pain points, identifying opportunities for change and collaborating with veterans to validate those findings from that analysis. This work generates direction for performance improvement teams to address the root causes of customer complaints. A key ingredient to their success is helping agency staff to personally connect to customer experiences. “You’re creating … opportunities for them to see, feel and visualize the data and have it associated with stories,” said Jennifer Purdy, executive director of patient experience at the agency. “It’s making it real and actionable in a way that it would not be on a chart.”
4. Comprehensive data-sharing policy infrastructure
“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
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ data team identified (by geographic region) different groups of people across the country who are potentially eligible for citizenship, but not yet pursuing this status. The team shared this information with their counterparts in the education and outreach office, who then created and launched a citizenship application awareness campaign tailored to different local communities.
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:
- Prioritizing internal data-sharing agreements that enable secure data validation or verification without requiring agencies to share their customers’ personal information.
- Developing expedited data-sharing agreement templates for customer experience, building on the Chief Data Officer Council’s Data Sharing Working Group’s Findings and Recommendations.
- Developing authoritative, up-to-date legal interpretations of Privacy Act requirements and other relevant regulations related to customer experience for intra-agency use.
In early 2022, through a concerted, coordinated effort by the IRS and the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, tax filers were sent statements detailing the Economic Impact Payments they received during the pandemic. By getting these statements into the hands of the public early in the year, the IRS and the Fiscal Service, the agency responsible for disbursing payments, gave tax filers paperwork at just the right time—during the pre-tax filing season—help customers access any additional payments to households. The carefully timed distribution came about because the two entities ironed out a data-sharing agreement in advance, with the specific goal of getting guidance to the public when they needed to act on it. The IRS has other creative data sharing arrangements as well, such as its collaboration with Federal Student Aid to create a process whereby IRS staff can validate income thresholds information without explicitly sharing customer’s personal information.
5. Enterprise-wide digital backbone for consistent customer experience
“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:
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services dedicated years to building a central data repository that brings together relevant data sources. By creating a platform that can house data streams from different Medicare sources, CMS is establishing the potential to parse data for cross-cutting patterns and trends. “Over time, we believe this will become a central nervous system behind all the outreach that we do and a more integrated omnichannel environment,” said one CMS official.
- Leadership commitment to enterprise-wide solutions instead of custom solutions for individual lines of business, along with opportunities for digital teams to spread successful solutions to agencies.
- Digital teams with relevant customer-centric experience, or blended teams with experience in a range of fields including technology and digital platforms, software development, data, design, and customer experience.
- Customer usability assessments that are incorporated into digital procurement decisions, such as digital services apps.
- Long-term funding commitment for modernizing technology to support and enhance the customer experience—for example, consolidating websites; leveraging digital tools and platforms; migrating data and applications to the cloud; and transforming contact centers.
- A consolidated data strategy that addresses all agency data, with a security that serves customers’ needs.
The Federal Student Aid office took the opportunity of the COVID-19 driven student loan payment pause to thoroughly invest in all the channels customers might use
to understand this benefit and communicate all they might need to know. Wendy Bhagat, the director of product marketing and delivery group at FSA, said “We worked together to make sure that if we’re making updates on our website, Aidan [FSA’s virtual assistant
] can then answer those specific questions that people may ask based on the updates we made, that we have social media content that’s pointing people to those updates on our website, and that there’s regular email communication with our borrower so that they know what they may want to be thinking of during the payment pause, like looking at what the best repayment plan for them is. It was very much a collaborative effort to help our customers stay informed and engaged.”
6. External partnerships for expert knowledge and trusted communication
“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:
- Being proactive about starting, developing and maintaining a strong network of organizations with related missions.
- Having staff members whose work is dedicated to managing such partnerships.
- Deploying the partners’ unique capabilities for tailored purposes, including outreach to communities in their language and with their culture in mind; messaging to populations whose members might not have taken full advantage of benefits available to them; and creating education programs for the staff at federal agencies.
The Transportation Security Administration partners with more than a hundred advocacy groups that represent people who need support during the airport screening process, such as Wheels for the World and Guide Dogs of America. Through these partnerships, TSA shares guidance for the public about TSA Cares—a program that assists people during the screening process—whether helping people with arthritis to ready their luggage or helping people who use wheelchairs to comfortably make their way through the tight quarters of a screening section. “We understand people with disabilities may have additional stress going through an airport, so it’s really just giving them a little extra time and breathing room when going through screening, to make for a smooth process,” said Niki French, customer service branch manager, TSA.
7. Co-design of services with customers
“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:
- Technical and physical barriers: Do underserved customers have good internet connectivity enabling them to attend design meetings virtually? Do they have the time to contribute to this task? Can they commute to an in-person gathering?
- Emotional barriers: Do agency representatives feel comfortable giving up the privilege of being the expert in the room? Do community representatives feel comfortable enough to actively participate? Is there a relationship of trust between the two groups?
- Communication barriers: Do all parties have a common language? Are they using terminology with the same assumptions?
- Resource barriers: Can the community participants be compensated for their time?
“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