How Americans’ Expectations Are Transforming Government

The revolution in customer service in the private sector is forcing agencies to rethink how they engage with citizens and deliver on their missions.

The IBM Center recently released Seven Drivers Transforming Government, a series of essays exploring key drivers of change in government. It is based on research and insights shared by current and former government officials. What follows is an edited excerpt from that report.

The way Americans interact with businesses, news, entertainment, and other services has radically raised expectations for how they interact with government. Citizens expect the same level of service from government as they receive in the private sector, such as increased transparency, new ways to approach problems, and more personalized interactions. These expectations have prompted agencies to take a number of steps, including:

  • Using the internet and social media platforms to engage in dialogue, co-create, and ultimately improve services.
  • Establishing offices dedicated to exploring and leveraging innovation. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department’s Center for Innovation has worked to identify, test, and evaluate new approaches to meet the current and future needs of veterans.
  • Creating innovation labs to collaborate with stakeholders across industries and disciplines to solve complex challenges.
  • Establishing technology and design teams, such as the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration’s 18F to help federal agencies develop new ways to engage and deliver services to citizens.

Expanding Citizen Engagement

Collaboration and co-creation can expand citizen engagement. Many examples at various levels of government show citizens engaging with public organizations to improve the front-end experience as well as the governing process. For example:

  • Citizens can help identify important issues via crowdsourcing and co-creation platforms such as SeeClickFix, a mobile application that allows people to report non-emergency issues in their cities and has led to fixing more than 3 million issues.
  • Citizens can play a direct role in developing solutions to those issues through online contests and competitions, mobile apps, electronic petitions, innovation jams, virtual design and prototyping tools, open-source databases, participatory design workshops, and online citizen communities.
  • Experts in and out of government can work together in solving complex issues and enhance government services. For example, the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program recruits accounting students, who receive training from the IRS, to assist low-income citizens with preparing their tax returns for free. During the 2015 tax season, more than 90,000 volunteers helped to prepare 3.7 million tax returns.

Leveraging New Capabilities

Advances in technology like cognitive computing and blockchain can drive new and better citizen experiences. These technologies increase citizen interaction on digital channels, providing additional personalization for users while freeing up resources for agencies to tackle more complex problems. For example, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ cognitive virtual assistant, Emma, answers nearly 500,000 visitor inquiries every month. This allows agency staff to focus on more challenging cases and increases customer satisfaction across the board.

Going forward, agencies face the challenge of how to scale innovation across the enterprise and leverage new ideas from unexpected sources. Experience from a number of programs provides insight into how government can scale efforts. For example, Challenge.gov, a central portal for federal prizes and competitions, has scaled to include more than 640 competitions, participants from every state, more than $220 million in awarded prizes, and participation from more than 80 agencies. Part of the effort to scale will also require buy-in from other agencies and lawmakers, helping them understand the value of a citizen-driven, engaged government.

Organizations can leverage massive amounts of available data to better meet citizen needs. Data can help identify opportunities for improvement, inform design, and measure results. For example, the Justice Department used data to create more objective techniques in their grant process, allowing them to review grants more frequently and in much less time. The open data movement and Data.gov have been instrumental in increasing transparency and collaboration to engage agencies, individuals, and the private sector.

The gap between what citizens expect from government and what they get continues to grow, as the private sector outpaces the public sector in innovation. To close this gap, agencies must transform the way they design services, allocate resources, and measure accountability.  Moreover, government leaders must integrate user experience to guide all citizen interactions. Engagement is  more than simply making a mobile app or updating a website. It emerges from meeting users’ needs in how they wish to interact with government.

Darcie Piechowski is the IBM Center for The Business of Government’s Social & Media Innovation Fellow.

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