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Want to Improve Government Customer Experience? Focus On Employee Morale

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Federal efforts to improve agency interactions with citizens will fall short unless employees are fully invested in the process, understand the goals, have a say in how to make improvements and are rewarded for their work.

Recent studies of the private sector have found that employee engagement goes hand in hand with the quality of customer experience they provide. Federal leaders should focus on this connection, considering the government lags well behind the private sector on employee engagement, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® analysis.

This gap is making it harder for government to meet the rising expectations of citizens for fast, simple, user-friendly interactions.  

In the public sector, research conducted by the National Center for Organization Development within the Department of Veterans Affairs found that VA medical centers with higher levels of employee engagement also had patients who reported higher levels of satisfaction with their care. 

As agencies receive and analyze the results of the 2017 Best Places to Work data and the Office of Personnel Management survey on which it is based, they should consider ways to improve the experience of their employees as a means of providing better citizen services.

The Partnership and Accenture Federal Services have identified a number of strategies that can help federal leaders empower their employees to meet citizens’ expectations. The following approaches could lead to both improved employee morale and citizen satisfaction:  

Focus on values and outcomes rather than rules. Employees tend to thrive in organizations that establish clear shared values and inspire their workers to adhere to these values to achieve mission objectives, rather than to blindly follow rules or procedures.

When leaders at the VA launched an effort to improve services to veterans, they recognized the need to shift from an agency culture that stressed rules to one that emphasized core values of service to veterans.  

To make this shift, leaders established a set of core principles: integrity, commitment, advocacy respect and excellence. They used training and conversations between VA leadership and staff to teach the specifics of what it meant to demonstrate those values. The goal? Let employees know that if they act in accordance with these values to improve services to veterans, leadership would support the decisions they make on how to achieve those improvements. Over the last few years, both employee engagement and veteran satisfaction scores have risen.    

Invest in technologies that empower staff to serve citizens.  Many federal employees work with outdated IT systems that hamper their ability to provide timely, personalized support to citizens. That leads to frustration both for employees and customers.

The IRS is working to address this issue as it upgrades technology in contact centers to allow callers to send sensitive tax information to agents securely, making it easier for the agents to get the information they need to serve callers effectively.    

The Department of Education launched the Federal Student Aid Feedback System in 2016.  This online portal allows federal student aid customers to submit complaints, provide positive feedback and report allegations of suspicious activity regarding their experience with federal student aid programs. The system provides case management capabilities to employees across all FSA business units to enable tracking from intake to resolution, expedite complaint resolution, and to inform continuous improvement in customer experience.

Give employees visibility into the citizen experience. Federal employees who do not typically interact with citizens often can feel removed from the people they serve and may lack visibility into their challenges.  Insight into the customer experience can help them see the impact of their work and weigh their decisions from a citizen’s perspective.  

Both the VA and IRS have invested in qualitative user research to understand their customers’ pain points and desires and have created customer personas and journey maps to visualize customer experience and where improvements are needed. Job rotations can provide great exposure to customer experience. The Social Security Administration provides 30-day details for headquarters employees to a regional office, where they often have a chance to work with citizens more directly.  

Celebrate accomplishments. The many stories of federal employees providing great services to citizens rarely make headlines. Whether through an awards program, personal recognition from leadership or another strategy, agencies need to highlight and celebrate staff who go the extra mile.     

Passport office leaders at the State Department circulate thank you letters and inspiring stories the public sends in, as well as the glowing Yelp reviews that citizens post.

Use employee feedback to improve services.  Front-line employees often have the best understanding of what it takes to improve the customer experience. Leaders who solicit feedback often provide a morale boost for those employees, particularly when they act on the information.

With this understanding, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passports holds confidential sessions with passport specialists when she travels around the country, without their managers in the room, to get candid information about how to enhance the employee and customer experience. Along with boosting morale, these sessions often elicit great ideas for improving services.      

Other federal leaders should consider the connection between employee engagement and the customer experience, if they have not already, and seek to improve their agencies on both fronts.  

Eric Keller is a senior program manager for research at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. 

Kathy Conrad is the director of digital government at Accenture Federal Services. She works with the Accenture Federal Digital Studio to help agencies use design thinking and service design to solve complex challenges, create great experiences and deliver mission outcomes.

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