(Photo by Michael Medina Latorre/FEMA)
Achieving lasting change and impact in federal services requires the federal government to address the root causes, rather than the symptoms, of customer experience challenges. To do so, government needs to center its efforts on the customer—all possible and eligible customers, with an emphasis on those most in need of assistance—when designing and delivering services.
Agencies are often drawn to the symptoms of bad customer experience because they present clear visible to-do lists. This has generated extensive remedial activities over the past decade. Agencies have upgraded poorly designed websites, automated complicated processes, translated forms from jargon, and invested in traditional customer satisfaction surveys and transactional feedback platforms that provide information on what people say but do not reveal what they do or why. As successful as these efforts can be, they often miss the issue of why those activities were needed, failing to identify or address the underlying issues from the perspective of the customer. This game of whack-a-mole offers the potential for success only on the margins.
ADDRESSING CUSTOMER NEEDS FROM THE START
Leaders supporting the design and experience of Recreation.gov found they had a large and growing help center on their site for newer users, who reported lower-than-average satisfaction with their use of the popular site. In a key shift, designers are moving some of the most frequently referenced help center content to the primary webpages, so users do not have to constantly refer to a frequently asked questions page or other resources. And a new, simpler landing page welcomes first-time users. These moves, driven by new-user testing, are welcome. The opportunity now: how can Recreation.gov evolve to address customer needs from the start, and how might the underlying issues that diminish the experience be addressed?
The good news is the Biden administration made its intentions on trust and equity clear, and federal agencies have proven resilient and innovative through almost two years of COVID-19. Four approaches—some new, some building on agency success—can help fulfill this commitment.
Inclusive and ongoing customer research and listening
Federal agencies too often fail to include underrepresented or marginalized voices in their customer research.
Agencies may be receiving generalized, limited or biased input and feedback when they:
- Rely on feedback channels that present the perspective of current or average customers.
- Design mechanisms for customers who complete transactions, rather than understanding why people struggle or drop out.
- Apply outdated user views and preferences that do not reflect current circumstances.
- Are unable to segment customer insights into different demographic groups or behavioral mindsets.
Agencies may start with openness in their customer listening, welcoming all feedback, but fail to “hear” underserved communities. Consequently, agencies may orient their customer experience approaches in favor of those with the fewest barriers to access, or neglect to recognize unique needs among distinct and evolving customer populations.
Or agencies may fail to perceive that their customer listening activities rely on a built-in presumption of trust: that feedback will be heard, that past discrimination will be mitigated, that insights will not result in repercussions, or that the engagement and intention is genuine. These limitations could further marginalize those whom the agency needs to hear from the most.
Agencies should create and implement comprehensive, ongoing and inclusive “listening” and research strategies for the customer experience. Such strategies should follow the following principles:
- Start with what your agency needs to know to better serve the full range of potential customers, rather than what information or customers you have easy access to.
- Reflect the needs of eligible customers, not only existing ones, and use data to assess service gaps and opportunities.
- Analyze customer insights by specific populations or mindsets, rather than generalizing about the average customer.
- Establish diverse, inclusive design teams and identify unconscious bias that may affect how research goals are defined and findings are interpreted.
- Have a well-communicated strategy for why demographic information will be collected and how it will be protected, and how it will deliver value to customers.
- Listen to customers across all points of service.
- Go where the customers are through nontraditional customer listening channels such as online forums, social media and community meetings.
- Generate partnerships with trusted stakeholders to engage underserved communities.
Approaching “listening” from this angle shifts the focus from a symptom-centric approach—how do my current customers feel about my current offerings?—to a root-cause-centric approach—what are the specific public needs from my agency, what do I need to know to meet them, how might these vary across groups or over time?
Biden administration policy and guidance strongly supports this approach. The executive order on racial equity acknowledges the institutional harm of ignoring underserved communities. And the Equitable Data Working Group is currently assessing missing, inaccessible and underused customer data.
Several agencies have found success through proactive and inclusive listening. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Agriculture used targeted outreach and trusted community partners to hear from small farmers on how the crisis was affecting them. Insights from these sessions identified gaps in how these farmers were receiving aid under the American Rescue Plan. To address disparities, USDA reconceived programs such as Pandemic Assistance for Producers, proactively engaging key stakeholders to better understand their needs and barriers to access. “That front-end engagement is really critical to improving customer experience because you get a better product,” said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator for the Farm Service Agency. The USDA has also recently announced the Equity Commission to advise USDA on addressing “barriers to inclusion or access, systemic discrimination.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has examined why specific populations were not applying for disaster assistance. “The first thing we have to do is really understand who the survivors [in a disaster] are,” a senior disaster assistance official at FEMA noted, “and who among them are applying for assistance. Without that, we’re moving blindly.” For example, individuals with disabilities have historically been underrepresented in the data FEMA collects about assistance recipients. FEMA’s targeted outreach identified several real and perceived barriers to indicating disability on applications for assistance, such as lack of clarity on what constituted a qualifying disability. Addressing those barriers enabled FEMA to better understand the needs of these populations and how agency policies affected them, and led to more targeted outreach to educate people on what benefits are available—for example, on when accessibility needs such as wheelchair ramps are not impacted by assistance caps.
“The first thing we have to do is really understand who the survivors [in a disaster] are and who among them are applying for assistance. Without that, we’re moving blindly. We’re not able to fine-tune our programs to improve our support.”
Senior Disaster Assistance Official, FEMA
Such customer-centered work is is essential to resetting agency approaches, and expanding data and analytics work across agencies will help accelerate progress. The Partnership and Accenture’s informal survey on equity explored to what extent agencies collect data to understand the experience underserved populations have when they seek services from government. Though only an initial picture, the responses showed agencies have a long way to go until data and applied intelligence become effective tools for advancing equity and transforming experience.
Some 35% of respondents reported their workplaces collect “none” or only “a little” relevant data. In cases where any amount of data was collected, 36% of respondents indicated their agencies “rarely” or “never” use that kind of data to modify or redesign services to improve equity. Several respondents elaborated on their answers: one sharing that “data collection is in its infancy at the moment,” and another reporting “a severe lack of people who know how to collect and analyze this type of data.”
Integrate services for a more seamless customer journey
Federal agencies often focus on improving individual services or service channels, rather than integrating them into a seamless customer journey across channels, programs or levels of government.
Individuals facing a crisis, making a significant life change or simply trying to manage a planned event like a change of address do not start with the question of “what government agency can help, and what’s the best way to reach it?” They start with their needs. Agencies can better address those needs by better integrating customer engagement with separate channels within individual services, such as applying for benefits in person, online or over the phone. They can also improve how customers work with intersecting programs they may encounter, particularly during priority life events—both those that are planned, such as retirement, and those that are not, such as food insecurity.
During the pandemic, agencies made gains in broadening the number of channels customers can use to access services. These channels can range from in-person consultations, mobile applications and contact center phone calls to automated online chat, social media, web-based self-service and more. Multichannel or omnichannel approaches, done well, are a critical element of consistent, equitable and accessible service delivery, and OMB encourages them in its latest A-11 guidance.
Still, some agencies continue to struggle to deliver consistent and personalized services across channels, due to programmatic siloing or lack of access to digital programs and modern technology. Different channels may offer disparate levels of service or inconsistent information—for example, an online self-service application may use more formal terminology than a contact center employee who can gauge a person’s mindset during a conversation. Or they may present different capabilities, such as when application statuses can be determined only over the phone. If customers struggle to connect with agencies for services, it can lead to reduced trust in government, particularly if physical, emotional, social, psychological or economic concerns led them to seek assistance.
This potential disconnect grows more complex when customers navigate across several programs within an agency, or even across agencies and levels of government. To a customer, a “priority life event” does not come with a federal organizational chart or a roadmap.
Regardless of an agency’s strategy for engaging with customers, it may find that customers’ trust can vary by different customer groups and the channels they choose, as well as their experiences with government to date. Although the pandemic led agencies to increase investments in online service, agencies’ customer feedback data reported to OMB for the first half of 2021 shows people have less trust and confidence in government’s digital and self-service options than they do when connecting directly with an agency representative.
For example, though the Transportation Security Administration worked to improve the utility of its website, many customers first find information on TSA.gov and then reach out through other channels to confirm what they are reading is accurate. TSA staff believe that what they are seeking is reassurance for high-stakes decisions, and are exploring options like automated chatbots on their website to address this need. Understanding why customers have different levels of trust in channels, and investing accordingly, is critical for all agencies.
Agencies may be inadvertently diminishing trust in the services they deliver across channels and programs when they:
- Overlook reasons behind consistent drop-off points—when customers don’t complete a transaction—or repeated channel switching around particular services.
- Find disparate levels of trust or satisfaction among channels providing the same services.
- Lack connectivity between channels—for example, lack of customer history on all channels or a requirement to report data they previously provided in other channels—or lack the ability to share customer data among intersecting programs.
- Use different terminology in different service channels and intersecting programs.
Agencies should ensure equitable service delivery across channels and over the course of a customer’s journey, especially for priority life events, following these principles:
- Modernize service channels as part of an overall customer journey and ecosystem, rather than individual touchpoints and transactions, using evidence-based insight to create a seamless experience.
- Provide consistent information on products and services across all channels.
- Make customer documentation requirements consistent across channels and intersecting programs related to priority life events.
- Revise policies and regulations that restrict data-sharing or create duplicative data requirements, using a customer-centric lens.
- Proactively and securely share information with partner agencies and external stakeholders who have overlapping customer communities, and leverage effective communication channels.
- Create analytic strategies to define customer segments and populations—and identify trends and common needs—across services, not just within individual programs.
- Work with customer communities to identify solutions for increasing trust in service channels: for example, personalized self-service websites and intelligent systems that anticipate customer needs and proactively deliver information.
Today, OMB’s A-11 guidance encourages developing multichannel solutions, with a balance of traditional and digital methods. As progress occurs, agencies should not overlook seemingly minor distinctions in service across channels. For example, the Social Security Administration provides customers with benefit verification letters, which they may need to share with other parties to qualify for services. These letters can be requested in person, over the phone and online, but SSA found many people would go to field offices to obtain these letters, even if it took longer, because they had a different, more official-looking design. In 2020, SSA standardized these letters so that regardless of channel, they all look the same. The agency expects this change will lead to more people accessing the letter online, and is collecting data to determine if that is the case.
“We're looking at all of our services from an omnichannel perspective. Whereas in the past we might have created individual solutions for each channel, that would breed discrepancies between the outputs.”
Eric Powers, Social Security Administration
This year, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services focused a great deal of effort on improving the customer experience for those who are new to Medicare, looking at the experience holistically across the many ways people can interact with and get information from the service. They launched an improved “Get Started with Medicare” section on Medicare.gov that helped new enrollees find and follow the information needed to make decisions about their coverage. CMS also began a pilot at the 1-800-Medicare call center where new-to-Medicare beneficiaries and first-time callers are being offered a “concierge”-style callback that will help them with confusing first-year decisions and tasks. They also made improvements to the Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) package that is mailed to beneficiaries roughly three months before they turn 65 (or otherwise become eligible) and includes their Medicare card, a letter describing their options and a booklet about coverage choices. These refined communications channels provide easy-to-understand information about how to make coverage decisions that are best for the beneficiary. By addressing this experience across many channels, CMS hopes to alleviate some of the confusion new-to-Medicare beneficiaries face.
Integrating different agencies’ work across related programs is more complicated. As a start, OMB has collaborated with an initial set of service providers to develop cross-agency customer journey maps for three complex experiences: military service members transitioning to veteran status and seeking employment; disaster survivors seeking assistance; and transition to adulthood for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It is also committed to providing resources on designing for priority life events. Some agencies, such as the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, are already collaborating closely on facilitating customer journeys across more than one service or agency. But some of the burden for such a fundamental shift will fall on Congress due to statutory requirements in program design.
Improve access and reduce burden by designing from the customers’ perspective
People may face excessive barriers to access government services, and federal agencies do not fully consider these administrative burdens.
Scholars Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd define administrative burden as the “costs that people encounter when they search for information about public services (learning costs), comply with rules and requirements (compliance costs), and experience the stresses, loss of autonomy or stigma that comes from such encounters (psychological costs).” These barriers and points of friction emerge for a range of reasons—politics, bureaucracy, security—but ultimately because government services have been set up from the perspective and preferences of government.
Barriers may result from procedures aimed at public stewardship, or they may be due to the real need to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. They may result from real or perceived disparities in service experiences, such as security screening based on behavioral cues. Or they may be the result of measures that limit eligibility for government services, such as income caps or work requirements for federal benefits. Regardless, administrative burden can have a profound impact on equitable service delivery, and federal agencies are only beginning to develop methodologies for identifying, measuring and mitigating it.
Agencies may be placing administrative burden on eligible customers when they:
- Fail to recognize different customer “starting points” in accessing services.
- Require identity verification processes less accessible to specific populations, such as through credit monitoring services.
- Build in requirements demanding customers go through potentially inaccessible steps: for example, in-person appointments, ink signatures, printed photos, or original or notarized documents.
- Offer multilingual services without consideration of cultural context in translation.
Focus on the full range of customers when designing and delivering services by using human-centered design practices, and measure the impact of efforts to reduce administrative burden.
Current federal policy suggests agencies take a human-centered approach to service delivery and asks that agencies regularly assess their capacity to perform at this level. Recent updates to OMB’s A-11 guidance require agencies to measure customer experience feedback, equity and burden. And the executive order on racial equity requires agencies to complete equity assessments that detail administrative burden and create an investment plan to address the barriers they find. Taken together, these policies offer a generational opportunity for remarkable progress in advancing agencies’ capacity to serve all people equitably.
But policy and intent are only the first steps. Agencies face real tradeoffs and challenges in addressing the glut of administrative burden embedded in federal programs. The administration’s study of methods to assess equity notes the work of equity is not undertaken in a few speeches or budget years but “typically involves complex, long-term change management.” Agencies should prepare themselves to invest in the long-term change management required to reduce administrative burden and increase accessibility of their services by applying the following principles:
- Design—or redesign—with, not for, the customer to identify and address policy, product and service-specific barriers and burdens.
- Recognize the historical context of government engagement with marginalized and underserved populations.
- Use evidence when evaluating administrative burden; for example, to determine if security or fraud prevention requirements are cost effective—does reducing identity verification requirements increase or decrease improper payments?
- Design for accessibility, recognizing the need for both universal access and accommodation for those who have been historically excluded.
- Minimize the requirement for customers to seek help from a third party to access services or, when required, recognize those third-party needs.
- Design business models that address outcomes tied to mission impact, not output. For example, measure the success of self-service capabilities and impact on other channels.
- Identify opportunities for proactive customer engagement, including intelligent systems that anticipate customer needs and can offer assistance or information before people seek it.
Centering service design on how customers approach needs will go a long way toward addressing root causes of administrative burden, as will understanding such barriers are often systemic, not superficial. As agencies make these shifts, they can benefit from several success stories.
The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to many agencies it was possible to rapidly stand up secure and widely available online services. The IRS is one of many agencies with strict online identity verification requirements aimed at reducing errors, fraud and abuse. But these requirements have prevented many customers from accessing the IRS’ online services—in fiscal year 2020, only 42% of taxpayers attempting to verify their identity and register for a new online account were able to meet IRS’ authentication standards, which may require credit card or mortgage account information. Recognizing this burden, the IRS is now testing the Secure Access Digital Identity program, which will provide additional options for people to verify their identity, such as using utility bills or driver’s licenses. If successful, other agencies could pursue similar methods of verification.
“We think it’s just good government. It is a way for us to be able to again make sure that we are protecting that data, but also offer that opportunity for people to be able to authenticate.”
Ken Corbin, Chief Taxpayer Experience Officer
Many organizations have recognized the burden posed by agencies’ inability to provide status updates and processing times to customers, particularly in multistep processes that have a significant impact on customer livelihoods. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has, as a rule, presented processing times for most applications as broad ranges, in many cases months or years—a significant point of stress for customers. But in a recent reform, the agency made personalized, analytics-based processing times available for some forms, for applicants with online accounts. These updates enable customers to plan ahead with the assurance that their application is moving forward. The information also reduces the need for applicants to call USCIS.
More broadly, federal agencies should be completing their own calculations of inequity driven by policy barriers and administrative burden, based on guidance in the executive order on racial equity. Agencies should also take advantage of the executive order’s requirement to prioritize investments necessary to tackle these challenges in their upcoming budget proposals.
Strengthen the organizational capacity for equitable, accessible and customer-centered work
Agencies may have the right customer experience policies and mindsets, but lack organizational structure, talent and technology to design customer-focused services from the beginning.
Federal leaders can stand behind the groundbreaking customer experience and equity policy and guidance of the current administration, but if they do not provide resources to their agencies’ engine rooms of listening, design and delivery, they will struggle to implement that policy.
“This stage can be the most frustrating one. We’re building the capacity to produce amazing things. But most people don’t care about how great it is to build the factory—they care about how great the final product is.”
Paul Funk, Senior Advisor at the Social Security Administration
Attention to agency leadership, skills and organizational design is particularly important for the Biden administration priority on equity in service delivery. A critical point in the administration’s study on methods to assess equity is to center on the customer, but it is not simply a matter of creating a new office or adding to the staff. It is a fundamental mindset shift on several fronts, demanding strong leadership to embed that mindset into core agency functions. And, based on our informal survey of the government’s current capacity for equity, at many agencies the talent, technology and resources needed remain in short supply.
Agencies should be concerned about their organizational capacity for customer experience work if they:
- Rely on volunteers or secondary duty assignments for critical customer experience expertise.
- Launch digital solutions without understanding their accessibility or connection to customer needs.
- Approach customer experience measurement from financial or operational perspectives.
- Approach the customer experience, human-centered design or equity and accessibility as siloed or secondary functions.
Agencies should incorporate customer experience and equity principles into their core processes and functions, reviewing talent, technology, strategy and organizational processes and structures. To set themselves up for success, agencies should embrace the following principles:
- Invest in a dedicated workforce for human-centered design, user experience, equity, data and evaluation—whether through hiring, contracting, professional development or partnerships.
- Use annual customer experience capacity assessments (directed by A-11) to drive annual budget submissions, embracing customer experience functions as core to mission delivery.
- Make it routine to add customer experience elements into strategic planning, learning agendas, evaluation, budgeting and other agency governance processes.
- Modernize infrastructure to power customer-centric systems and leverage digital tools and intelligent technologies to enhance customer experience efforts.
- Elevate responsibility for customer experience outcomes to agency leaders and use the President's Management Council for accountability.
Several agencies have recognized the need to invest in themselves to advance the customer experience mission. At Federal Student Aid, a key factor behind recent increases in customer satisfaction has been the agency’s enhanced capability to conduct user research to inform design and product management. FSA made a point of hiring experts for a new directorate with this mission, recognizing it needed staff members with deep expertise in product design and user research who could work full time in those areas. The new directorate also formalized the processes FSA uses to build and launch new products, creating consistency and cohesion. “Having a team that is accountable for this work is very significant,” Jessica Barrett Simpson, former manager for the digital and customer care program, said, enabling FSA to ensure the agency creates products with customer needs in mind from the beginning. And improvements can be rolled out more quickly, according to FSA officials.
The Veterans Health Administration is redesigning clinical contact centers with veterans’ experiences in mind. The redesign, aimed for launch at the end of the year, will enable contact centers to transfer some medical questions to providers, while contact center staff members address basic administrative, scheduling and pharmacy questions. This move brings veterans closer to their medical care objective in a single call. Medical providers can help triage these customers’ needs, addressing urgent issues over the phone and saving trips to the emergency room. This is a good example of VA’s model for designing “easy, effective and emotionally resonant experiences that build trust,” Jennifer Purdy, executive director for patient experience, said. To help achieve this, the VHA is transitioning the clinical contact centers away from a facility-based model toward a consortium model that brings together several contact center teams. This will help enable the department to manage demand across the VA more effectively.