How Agencies Can Help Citizens Navigate the Maze of Information

Information is a good thing; but what about when there’s too much of a good thing?

What do citizens do when they need to find information about government programs? They Google it. But what happens when that search query returns a flood of confusing options? Information is a good thing; but what about when there’s too much of a good thing?

Over the years, we’ve come to expect our interactions with companies, whether our bank, cable company or insurance provider, to be immediate, digital and seamless. Knowing this, companies have specifically designed their digital self-service tools, including websites and social media pages, to ensure customers can find answers as quickly and easily as possible. Search relevance is key.

The challenge for government is that the private sector has set an extremely high bar for the customer experience. Instead of comparing the level of customer service between agencies, citizens are comparing an agency’s level of customer service to that of Amazon or Zappos. The government recognizes this, and as a result, has placed improving the customer experience high on the list of cross-agency priority goals from the president’s management agenda.

Cutting Through the Noise

Adding to the challenge, when citizens go online to access a government service, they are usually seeking information in response to an immediate concern or a potentially serious problem. For example, an individual may need to replace a lost or stolen passport, or find out how to apply for emergency aid after a natural disaster. They may have pressing questions related to Medicare coverage. These are often times when people are most vulnerable, and therefore least equipped to sort through a barrage of information.

Understanding what Medicare recipients look for online highlights the good, and bad, of today’s seemingly unlimited information resources. A simple Google search for “Medicare” will return pages of search results—much of it irrelevant and many containing links to commercial services rather than information from the Medicare program. It’s too easy for citizens to get incorrect information and get lost down a rabbit hole searching for the answer to a question.

The key to rising above the noise and clutter of search engine results is for agencies to develop sites that focus on citizen-driven information, as opposed to regulatory-driven data. When agency websites were first created, the notion of the citizen experience was just evolving. As agency sites and portals are updated and modernized, it is critical to keep citizens—and their preferences for retrieving information—at the center of the design.

The Urgency of Now

It is rare that someone will casually browse through an agency website to learn more about it and the services it offers. Instead, citizens will search for the most relevant section of an agency website to find an answer or take an action for their specific requests. Therefore, one goal for agencies is to anticipate and develop ways for citizens to find answers to specific questions or requests. This is especially relevant for agency services that respond to circumstances or situations—such as lost passports and disaster aid—that citizens consider urgent.

Agencies that provide services related to crisis situations should also anticipate and take into account underlying hardships citizens may be experiencing as they’re using the website. Situations of extreme stress limit cognition by up to 80 percent, according to CDC's Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication program. That means any shortcomings associated with the digital experience will be compounded 10-fold for citizens in distress trying to access information.

Design with Self-Service in Mind

The ultimate goal is to develop an online environment where people can find what they’re looking for on their own. For instance, someone looking for a form should be able to find it quickly and download it instantly as part of a seamless user experience. Nothing will frustrate citizens more than a non-productive visit to an agency website that results in a phone call to the agency in the hopes of finding information that they expected would be easy to locate. As humans, we tend to remember the bad interactions for much longer than the good ones.

A dedicated focus on improving service is being driven by both the CAP goals and by government officials’ growing awareness that citizens often measure an agency’s success by how well it provides service to them. Whether an agency has already launched strategies in support of improved service or is determining what it needs to address first, the citizen experience needs to be at the center of every agency’s planning process. That’s what’s at the forefront of every citizen’s mind.

Anna Sever is Vice President, Health and Citizen Services, at MAXIMUS Federal.