Building a Better Experience for Government’s Customers

The pandemic is spurring some agencies to retool the way they interact with the public.

The coronavirus pandemic has required nearly all organizations—from restaurants to schools to banks—to drastically rethink how they deliver services. It has been the same for government. The pandemic shuttered federal field offices, disrupted contact center operations, overwhelmed some online systems serving the public and moved many employees to full-time telework. 

Federal agencies adjusted quickly to this new world, finding innovative ways to interact with their customers. And while trust in government remains near an all-time low, according to the Pew Research Center, providing better experiences for customers who interact with government will help rebuild that trust.  

The president’s management agenda offers a useful game plan to help agencies improve the customer experience in a rapidly changing world. The Trump administration has made progress on the PMA’s cross-agency priority goal on customer experience over the past two years, building on efforts initiated in the Obama administration. Agency leaders can look to adjust services and deliver improved experiences by focusing on four areas from the CAP goal: measurement, culture change, service design and governance.  

Measure what matters. The Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on the CAP goal requires agencies to measure and publicly report customer experience data, an important step toward an improved experience. Rather than distribute a customer survey as a box-checking exercise, use customer research techniques such as surveys, interviews and direct observation to identify what matters most to customers, recognizing that priorities may have changed in the past few months. 

Consider how the things that matter to customers align with agency goals such as increasing efficiency or lowering costs. For example, can people conveniently complete self-service transactions online if field offices are closed and contact centers are busy? Can customers easily find and understand information for submitting applications or complying with regulations, freeing agency staff to focus on other work?

When circumstances change quickly, getting input from front-line staff and customers is especially valuable to understand and address unanticipated needs. When the pandemic first hit, Veterans Benefits Administration staff got calls from veterans receiving education assistance who were concerned that, under current rules, the VA would reduce their housing allowances as their classes shifted online. This would leave many of them unable to both pay rent and continue their studies. Staff quickly notified VA leaders, who worked with Congress on the issue. Within two weeks, legislation passed allowing the VA to maintain current levels of housing payments during the crisis.   

Tackle culture. Agencies will need a customer-focused culture to adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic. Services such as Agriculture Department farm loans historically relied on close, personal relationships between federal staff and farmers, with frequent in-person contacts. USDA is now working on maintaining those connections virtually and building more capability to deliver online services—requiring shifts in culture as employees working remotely find new ways to engage with their customers.  

To facilitate building a more customer-focused culture, agency leaders can include customer experience in their organization’s core values and align employee incentives and performance measures with those values. For example, VA leaders modified the department’s core values—in regulations governing the VA’s internal business practices—to include customer experience principles. Those principles include focusing on the ease and effectiveness of customer interactions as well as on customers’ emotions.   

Put people first. Rather than compelling people to adapt to often arcane agency structures or processes, some agencies use service design techniques to create logical, intuitive services that reflect customers’ needs. This approach is especially critical now, as more customers shift to online services. Agencies recognize that delivering convenient online services that meet people’s needs will keep them using these more cost-effective channels into the future. 

In designing, the USDA prioritized features that are most important to farmers, such as being able to view the status of their loans. But many federal websites struggle on this front, according to our 2019 Government for the People report. Sometimes agencies do not seek to understand what is the most important content for customers, or they neglect to prioritize it. 

Coordinate across channels and organizations. Agencies often take a siloed approach to improving the customer experience, rather than having an overarching strategy for their websites, contact centers, in-person services and social media interactions. The resulting experience is often fragmented. 

Some agencies are establishing governance structures to improve coordination. The Transportation Security Administration, for example, set up a customer experience working group with staff members from different teams who are empowered to coordinate improvements. The Office of Federal Student Aid makes sure its systems provide consistent information—no matter how people contact them —through its Next Generation Financial Services Environment initiative. 

Like all organizations, federal agencies must continually evolve and adjust how they work, especially since some aspects of that work may never be the same. Advancing successfully as the world changes requires agencies to stay on top of customers’ needs and build toward a new future.

Eric Keller is a senior manager for research and analysis 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, data, and technology to solve complex challenges, create great experiences and deliver mission outcomes.