Most Americans agree that the level of customer service they receive from cable companies and the airline industry is less than stellar. Yet, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, citizens gave even lower marks to the federal government. Only Internet service providers received lower ratings than government.
The federal government’s 2013 ACSI score was 66, two points lower than in 2012. The drop, according to ACSI, was driven by deteriorating satisfaction with agency websites broadly across government.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Government websites are notoriously difficult to navigate, largely because they assume a level of familiarity with agency structures and programs that most Americans understand. In the private sector, however, online commerce is exploding and companies are getting increasingly savvy at making online purchases as easy as one touch of a button, even predicting things you might like and sending you featured items based on your viewing history.
This ease of doing business contrasts starkly with the online visitor’s experience to government websites, where you may be asked to submit the same information several times, if you can submit it all.
To be fair, this is a tough challenge for agencies, because while visitors may want excellent customer service from government, they seem less willing to share personal information and have it stored by Uncle Sam for future use. And, of course, there are many other challenges for the federal government, including the way money is appropriated to a single agency even though a customer’s needs may cut across the work of several agencies.
There are efforts under way to bring about change. In a new report, “Serving Citizens,” the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services highlight four examples of collaborative online efforts that have built their strategies around the needs of the customer. These agencies have faced challenges and overcome barriers that provide lessons for others to follow.
BusinessUSA, for example, was established to provide businesses with a single platform for all the resources that support them. The leaders of the effort started with the premise that businesses looking for federal assistance should feel like they are interacting with one entity, rather than several different subcomponents. An extensive interagency effort, BusinessUSA relies on a shared knowledge base of questions and answers across multiple channels. Now businesses don’t have to guess which government agency is best equipped to answer a question, they can just go to BusinessUSA.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the White House called on federal agencies to coordinate disaster assistance and to establish a centralized application process. DisasterAssistance.gov was launched in 2008, enabling users to find information on 70 disaster assistance programs from 17 federal agencies. In 2013, the more than 370,000 individuals registered for assistance through the site.
Similarly, Recreation.gov has streamlined the process for visitors to national parks, national forests and other federally operated facilities. In the 1990s, the Interior and Agriculture departments each operated separate online systems to reserve campsites on federal lands. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers managed camping and fishing for the lakes and waterways it oversees, and the list went on. Recreation.gov was launched in 2007, primarily as a campsite reservation service, but has grown to include seven agency partners and a variety of services.
These examples demonstrate that agencies can work together to build websites around the needs of the citizen, rather than the structure of government. Putting the citizen, or customer, first needs to become the way government approaches all its business—and doing so will not only improve customer satisfaction ratings, but will help restore trust in government.
Lara Shane is vice president of research and communications at the Partnership for Public Service. Download the complete the report, “Serving Citizens: Strategies for Customer-Centered Government in the Digital Age,” at ourpublicservice.org.