How the Next Administration Can Improve Customer Experience

Past efforts have created strong momentum—it will be up to Clinton or Trump to keep it going.

Signature initiatives to improve government operations have been a hallmark of recent administrations.  The Clinton administration’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government program sought, with some success, to streamline the federal bureaucracy and align programs more closely with citizen needs.  During the Bush administration, passage of the E-Government Act of 2002 provided a framework for how federal agencies could capitalize on the Internet to improve citizen access to government services and information. 

Most recently, the Obama administration made substantial strides in shifting government to be more citizen-centric and to increase digital services. To that end, it launched the U.S. Digital Service, 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, bringing top software engineers, designers, usability experts and product developers into government.

These experts are working with agencies to model and expand leading practices. Open data is now the default, and shared solutions such as the Digital Analytics Program led by the General Services Administration, provide agencies with data that helps them understand better how and where their customers are interacting online.

These initiatives have created strong momentum. Agencies are increasingly recognizing that services should be built from the outside in, around customer needs—rather than from the inside out, based on government organization and policies. The next administration, whether it is headed by a President Clinton or a President Trump, will likely bring its own twist to these initiatives.   

As a starting point, new leaders should recognize that the stakes have risen considerably over the past several years. Today’s citizens expect (and increasingly demand) the same simple, intuitive and responsive interactions with government that they experience with commercial applications and services. According to a March 2016 Accenture survey, 85 percent of Americans expect government digital services to meet or exceed commercial standards—a 16 percent increase from just two years ago. 

Government, however, still struggles to meet those expectations.  A recent survey by Forrester research found that the federal government provides some of the worst customer experiences across the public and private sectors. Despite the progress being made, more needs to be done to translate their efforts into tangible results. 

The next administration should capitalize on the foundation already established and focus on achieving clear and measurable improvements in citizens’ experience with government. Here are four steps that would make a difference.

  1. Make improving the customer experience a visible and high-profile priority government-wide. Over the past few years, government has made progress in key areas such as improving how services are delivered to veterans and streamlining the process of applying for federal financial aid. Progress may stall, however, if the customer experience is no longer a visible administration priority. The new administration is required by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act to establish a set of cross-agency priority goals. Improving the customer experience with government services should be one of these goals—it will send a clear signal that this important work should continue. 
  2. Set clear goals and use data to drive performance.  Our research found that many federal agencies do not have the data they need to understand fully the citizens they serve. Even when they have the data, it is not always used to guide decisions and improve services. The new administration should require each agency to establish specific performance goals that measure the personal experience users have when interacting with government. And agencies should publish their progress toward these goals. The Department of Veterans Affairs has already taken steps in this direction.
  3. Require agencies to adopt a few standard customer survey questions to allow for consistent tracking of results over time. This would enable leaders to compare the customer experience across agencies and service delivery channels, and would help prioritize improvements where they are needed most.
  4. Remove unnecessary barriers to obtaining customer feedback. Any time federal agencies want to collect voluntary feedback from 10 or more citizens, they are required to go through an arduous approval process led by the Office of Management and Budget. This approval is required by the Paperwork Reduction Act, a law that has not been updated in more than 30 years and does not reflect the reality of an era in which government must quickly understand and adapt to changing citizen needs. The next administration should work with Congress to remove this unnecessary roadblock to obtaining customer feedback. 

If the next administration builds on this administration’s efforts and continues the momentum already underway, it will be that much closer to creating a customer-friendly government. 

Kathy Conrad is the director of digital government at Accenture Federal Services.  She works with the Accenture Federal Services Digital Studio to help clients implement service design strategies with their agencies. Eric Keller is a senior program manager for research at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Both authors contributed to the recent Government for the People: The Road to Customer-Centered Services report from the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture.