What Government Can Learn from Business about Customer Experience

Improvements could help agencies advance their missions.

The White House recently launched a SWAT team to bring ideas from the business world to help make government more effective: the White House Office of American Innovation. One of its primary goals is to drive improvements that will benefit citizens as the customers of government, according to Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, who will lead the office.  

Not all lessons from the private sector apply to government. But there are many areas in which federal leaders can learn from the business community about how to provide a better customer experience. One key lesson is that improving the customer experience leads to benefits that go well beyond happy customers.

For businesses, improved customer satisfaction can lead to higher profits. In government, it can help agencies advance their missions.   

In a new issue brief, “The Most Important Customer: Improving the Citizen Experience with Government,” the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services explain how a customer focus can make government more effective and help the administration accomplish major goals.

Providing customers with a user-friendly process can help promote public safety and security, for example. When the State Department made it easier to report lost or stolen passports with online reporting, the total number of passports reported missing increased by 46 percent. It is likely that many lost and stolen passports previously went unreported because it was inconvenient and time-consuming for citizens to go to an office, call a passport center or fill out and mail a form.     

This improvement allows the department to strengthen national security by cancelling missing passports and preventing their use by criminals or terrorists.  

Prioritizing the customer experience also can help accomplish the administration’s goal of decreasing wasteful spending. For example, the Social Security Administration saved taxpayer dollars by reducing improper benefits payments, in part by making it easier for citizens to report changes in their income.

The agency’s Supplemental Security Income program bases benefits on an individual’s wages, which often change because many participants work part time or in low-wage jobs. A lack of timely, accurate wage updates was a major cause of improper payments.

After viewing the issue from the customer’s perspective, Social Security launched a mobile app in 2013 to make it easier for beneficiaries to report their wages. By 2016, the agency was receiving more than 60,000 wage updates a month through the app. In addition to increasing payment accuracy, the app reduced the workload and error rate for agency staff, who previously had to enter the data manually.

To meet the administration’s goal of reducing the burden of government regulations, agencies can focus on making compliance more convenient and simpler for businesses and taxpayers. The New Zealand government launched an initiative called “Better for Business” to lighten the regulatory load and streamline compliance for companies. Based on the results of surveys and interviews with business leaders, the government found several ways to make life easier. One change links government databases and provides businesses with a single identification number, so they do not have to submit the same information to multiple agencies. The government estimates that this streamlined process will save businesses $60 million in compliance costs.

In the issue brief, the Partnership and Accenture offer recommendations on how the administration can improve the customer experience with government. To start, the administration should make this a cross-agency priority goal and pursue incentives and avenues for agencies to work together to improve how they deliver services.

The administration also should work with Congress to modernize the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires agencies to complete an arduous, bureaucratic clearance process before they can collect information from 10 or more members of the public. This sets a substantial barrier for agencies to obtain valuable, voluntary customers feedback, and for citizens to voice their concerns and provide suggestions.  

Finally, the administration should launch a public performance dashboard with customer feedback on the federal services that citizens use the most. A dashboard could increase accountability, help spread best practices throughout government, and provide valuable insights into what drives citizen satisfaction.

Whether it is by collaborating with a SWAT team of business experts or by implementing the ideas already percolating in agencies, federal leaders can make government work better for citizens by improving the customer experience.

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.