Over the past several years, there’s been a renewed effort to improve the experience citizens have when they interact with government agencies. This has been driven by presidential mandate, agency leadership, digital innovation, and industry support as well as consumer demand.
Some may wonder if this is really such a departure from earlier initiatives to make government services more accessible through websites or apps. It’s really part of an evolution. While technology tools and upgrades are part of the solution—and leveraging those tools is important—truly improving citizen engagement requires a more robust approach. Both content and technology must be integrated across channels and services in order to serve citizens efficiently and effectively.
Matching Commercial Experience
An advanced citizen engagement model is the next phase of the service revolution, and one that citizens are demanding as they increasingly expect service similar to what they get with Amazon, Apple or Hyatt. Yet while many agencies have significantly enhanced their customer experience with new technology, true citizen engagement requires more than digital tools alone.
Historically, legacy IT systems, process and organizational silos, and restrictions on data sharing have made it difficult to provide a seamless government customer experience to the public. Sometimes solving a service request requires interacting with a number of legacy systems. It is even more difficult if the transaction requires working with multiple agencies. As a result, instead of government serving citizens based on their needs, citizens have had to learn how to navigate government bureaucracy.
Martha Dorris, former Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies for GSA and now founder of Dorris Consulting International, has long advocated for change in this approach.
“The citizen shouldn’t have to lower their expectations when accessing government services,” said Dorris. “Government agencies should have the same customer-centric commitment as the commercial companies that have set the standards of great service.”
What the Next Administration Can Do
No matter who wins the November presidential election, the pressure on agencies to improve citizen engagement will continue.
Jim Williams, who oversaw the 2008 presidential transition as the acting GSA Administrator before becoming founding partner at Schambach and Williams Consulting, credits current and past administrations for the growing focus on citizen service, but believes the next administration and Congress must take this emphasis to a higher level across every department and agency.
“Given the clear need for dramatic improvements, the next President must see this as not only providing the efficient, quality services expected by an increasingly diverse population, but that improving and integrating services and citizen engagement is absolutely fundamental to the American people’s trust in their government,” Williams said.
“The next administration and Congress must be the catalyst to ensure that improved citizen service becomes an urgent and national priority with the right attention and resources.”
A New Approach
Delivering the next era of citizen engagement is not about just making new technologies available to the public. It is also about providing an experience that is integrated, user-friendly, and allows the public to get their problem solved via their channel of choice. Whether people want to go online, chat, email or talk to a person, the digital services platforms should deliver.
However, the importance of the human element should not be overlooked. Most people are very comfortable using self-service channels for routine transactions (e.g. renewing licenses, filing taxes or tracking student aid). But, the majority—more than 60 percent, according to our research—also wants quick access to human assistance when they believe their question or issue cannot be easily resolved. And they become frustrated when asked to restart an interaction after being transferred from a self-service channel to a service agent.
As lower cost self-service channels continue to handle more questions from citizens, those calls that are transferred to call agents will become more complex. This means center representatives will need enhanced training to solve those problems. It also will require that the information citizens provided earlier through self-service channels is efficiently passed on to service representatives to avoid asking callers to repeat information they have already provided.
The transition to a citizen-centric approach will require making new investments, embracing new disciplines, and a renewed focus on business process and outcomes.
“Improving citizen engagement is a transformation that must be a top priority for senior leaders and everyone in their agency,” says Dorris. “It often requires a culture change, but one that will ultimately lead to more satisfied employees and deliver a positive experience for citizens.”
Thomas Romeo is president of MAXIMUS Federal.