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This summer I mailed a bicycle to a vacation hotel. 

Instead of the bike, I received a note from the postman saying it was too big for the delivery truck and I would need to pick it up at the local post office. But which one? There were three in the local Zip Code. Calls to each referred me to a national 1-800 number, which said there was a 20-minute wait.  After 40 minutes, a very polite and very helpful person came on the line and gave me the right post office (which wasn’t one of the three).

Was I satisfied with my customer service? Yes. Was I satisfied with my customer experience? No.

And this seems to be endemic across a number of federal agencies, according to Forrester Research, which recently reported that most of the services in 15 federal agencies surveyed ranked near the bottom of about 300 public and private sector “brands” reviewed. Even the federal government itself sees the challenge: “Despite some important strides to improve customer service over the past 15 years, many federal government services fail to meet the expectations of the public, creating unnecessary hassle and cost for citizens, businesses, and the government itself.”

Improving customer service has been an off-and-on federal priority over a number of years. In fact, it is now more broadly referred to as “customer experience,” since research shows that “customer service” accounts for only a quarter of a customer’s overall satisfaction with their experience with a company or government agency.

So what is going on?

President Obama revitalized a focus on the government’s customers with a 2011 Executive Order that requires agencies to develop customer service plans. In response, some agencies created chief customer service offices, while others wove service initiatives into regular operations. Agencies pursued a range of initiatives, many focusing on internet services. However, when the Government Accountability Office examined selected agencies’ efforts underway in 2014, it found mix results

By his second term, President Obama doubled down. In 2014, the Office of Management and Budget designated customer service as one of the government’s top 15 cross-agency priority goals for the next four years. Lisa Danzig, the chief performance officer at OMB, and Carolyn Colvin, acting Social Security commissioner, were named as co-leads for this governmentwide push.

Efforts shifted into high gear this past year with the creation in March of the Core Federal Services Council, and the designation of 30 “high touch” customer services in the 16 agencies named to the council. Since its first meeting in April, the council has developed a set of strategies and a framework that can serve as a foundation to build upon in coming years.

Four Cross-Agency Strategies

The goal leaders and council have outlined four overarching strategies and undertaken a series of cross-agency initiatives for each of the strategies:

  • Improve top customer interactions. Rather than trying to boil the ocean, the goal leaders, along with council members, identified 30 core federal programs that provide services that touch a significant number of citizens and businesses. These include, for example, the issuance of passports, IRS online tax filing, patent approvals, and TSA airport screening programs.
  • Develop standards, practices and tools. Leaders of individual core service programs will develop their own improvement plans, with the goal of creating transaction-specific indicators to track progress. The council has also piloted an eight-part customer experience maturity assessment model—developed by a cross-agency community of practice—that each of the service programs has voluntarily used to assess themselves. Currently, leaders within the 30 services are sketching out “journey maps” of how people experience their services from a customer perspective to identify priorities for improvement.
  • Feedback and transparency. The council is piloting the use of Feedback USA , a customer feedback “pulse survey” kiosk, in about a half dozen agencies. These include local Passport, Citizen and Immigration Services, Social Security, and Veterans Benefit offices. Based on how useful these real-time responses are to managers, the plan is to expand to additional programs in coming months. The broader goal is to make it a standard practice for services to use feedback data in delivering core services and eventually to have transparency of transaction times and satisfaction measures publicly available.
  • Focus on the front line. In addition to focusing on customers, the initiative recognizes that you cannot have good customer satisfaction without satisfied employees. OMB created an annual customer service award program in 2015 to recognize individuals and teams in agencies and at the presidential level. More broadly, there is recognition that the employee engagement and satisfaction scores of frontline employees in organizations delivering core services may reflect improved customer experiences for those receiving services. This will be part of a broader focus to determine if special efforts are needed to improve employee engagement, as well.

A Governance Framework

Danzig and Colvin could do little on their own to move the needle on customer satisfaction, but by creating the Core Federal Services Council and highlighting 30 key service programs, they are now leveraging the efforts of leaders in the 16 agencies with operational responsibility for delivering these services. The council serves as a sounding board and identifies and resolves policy issues. It is staffed by a White House Leadership Development Fellow, providing a focal point to get things done.

In addition to the Council, there is an informal cross-agency Community of Practice. It is comprised of people in these 16 agencies with the knowledge and passion to improve customer experiences. These individuals were designated by their deputy secretaries and have the support of internal sponsors. They meet quarterly to identify and develop resources as well as identify common challenges, share best practices, and identify practical improvement strategies. For example, they developed a draft maturity model and worked on a Customer Experience Playbook to share more broadly with peers in other agencies, as well as a cross-agency collaborative platform on the Web.

Finally, for the first time, the governmentwide customer service initiative has access to resources. The fiscal year 2016 budget approved by Congress in March granted OMB funding transfer authority for cross-agency projects and the council has supported $2 million in funds   designated under the customer service goal.

Agency Initiatives 

Many agency plans call for improvements in online experiences. But these tend to be longer-term efforts that cost money, and acting on them requires support from agency CIOs already overwhelmed with demands to address cybersecurity, replace legacy systems and other urgent priorities. Yet, there are concrete short-term initiatives underway. Some examples:

Federal Student Aid: Organizing around the student. FSA provides about $150 billion a year in grants, loans, and work study. In 2010, FSA’s then-new Chief Operating Officer, Bill Taggert, established a Customer Experience Office to improve users’ experience.  As part of Executive Order 13571, FSA worked on a one-stop mobile-responsive site internally called the “Integrated Student Experience.” In the team’s initial review, they found FSA did not have a one-to-one relationship with students (its customers) but rather it worked with an ecosystem of providers, such as servicers and universities. Different divisions within FSA managed different parts of the ecosystem (financial literacy, marketing, aid applications, repayments, defaults) and these divisions had created separate, unconnected processes. As a result, students, borrowers and parents had to deal with multiple bureaucracies within FSA throughout the student aid lifecycle. 

The Customer Experience Officer reports directly to the COO and has a staff of about 105 people drawn from different divisions within FSA to reflect the entire student aid lifecycle. The Office was treated as a new startup that brought together staff from different divisions as well as a team of statisticians who created actionable insights. The new Office started by consolidating five different customer-facing websites, and in July 2012, FSA launched the one-stop StudentAid.gov.

Social Security Administration (SSA): A Lifecycle Approach. SSA serves the entire U.S. population, from birth to death and beyond (through survivor’s benefits). SSA’s strategic Vision 2025 sets out a long-term view of evolving customer expectations. The goal is to foster an internal culture shift among employees to focus on customer experience, not the business processes that have been put in place. 

More than half of SSA’s claims are already being filed online.  To further encourage the use of online services, the agency is creating new tools that look across the lifecycle of how citizens interact with SSA, from birth to death.   

The system ultimately will have the ability to forecast potential needs of customers and proactively provide information (prompting new parents to apply for a Social Security number after the birth of a child, for example). This is done by mining various databases (such as new birth records) and using analytics to mine information in an enterprise data warehouse. To do this, SSA has created an Analytics Center of Excellence to develop this functionality and it has developed cross-agency relationships to collect or use the data.

Social Security recently introduced the mySocialSecurity portal, which allows customers to access various services online—change their addresses, replace Medicare cards and more.

Case Study: The Passport Service. The last time Passport Services was in the news was in 2007, when thousands of customers missed vacation and business travel after the backlog of pending applications grew to crisis proportions. Congress even passed emergency legislation to bridge a staffing gap.

Today, improving customer service is “part of our culture to help people make their trips,” according to Barry Conway, managing director of Passport Support Operations in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. In fact, the headquarters office has a dedicated customer service division and there is a network of customer service managers in each of the 29 agencies and centers around the country.

The Passport Services’ customer satisfaction scores have been rising steadily—77 percent in 2013, and 81 percent in 2015—according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.  The recent Forrester survey also shows a sharp jump in satisfaction over the past year—an increase of 10 points on a 100-point scale.

The Service’s long-term initiative is to move to electronic processes wherever possible. For example, agency officials hope to move to electronic renewals of passports by the end of 2017, and to allow customers to make appointment online appointment for in-person visits to one of the 28 passport offices around the country.

Some near-term initiatives include piloting Feedback USA via kiosks in each office with a public counter. Customers exiting the offices can register their level of satisfaction with services received. The kiosks produce weekly summary reports for managers. Initially, the reports were met with skepticism, but they eventually did focus management attention and created some competition between the offices. While it doesn’t provide insights as to why customers respond the way they do, the buttons do alert managers when something seems to be seriously awry. Recent results show that 92 percent of customers were satisfied.

Next Steps

The four-year cycle for cross-agency priority goals ends in September 2017, nine months after the next president takes office. However, it is not unrealistic to think that the next president will also care about improving the delivery of government services. Over a dozen agencies have developed realistic strategies for their operations—a good foundation to build upon.

The authors of a recent report by the Partnership for Public Service offer several recommendations for action. Interestingly, their recommendations largely mirror much of what is already underway. So what else should the next Administration do?  Probably a good start would be to build on the foundation put in place, do pilots to find what works, scale them, and tell the success stories more prominently.

This is the first in a series examining cross-agency priority goals.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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