Inside DHS’ quest to streamline customer experience and ease public burden
The Department of Homeland Security’s CIO detailed how his agency saved the public 20 million hours accessing agency services in a move that signals a major culture change.
At the tail end of 2021, President Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to improve customer experience and service delivery, a long-awaited, wide ranging and — according to most third-party assessors of government performance in the discipline — quite necessary set of directives that impact every large federal agency and program.
According to DHS Chief Information Officer Eric Hysen, the executive order represented both a major challenge and critical opportunity for the leadership team of the sprawling agency, which is comprised of 15 operational and support components that employ more than 170,000 workers.
The department responded with a Burden Reduction Initiative that recently achieved a significant milestone outlined by DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, shaving 20 million hours off the total 190 million hours the public spends accessing DHS services annually.
“You may not think about customer experience as the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Department of Homeland Security, but in reality we are the federal agency that interacts with the public more on a daily basis than any other part of the federal government,” Hysen told Nextgov/FCW in a June 22 interview.
The Transportation Security Administration alone screens more than 2 million Americans each day, and quantifying the daily impact of other DHS components — including the U.S. Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — becomes a strictly mathematical exercise.
“When you think about travelers coming through air, land and seaports, you think about disaster survivors applying for assistance, businesses importing goods into the country, it adds up with such a diverse range of customers that we are touching every day, often at some of the most critical times in their lives,” Hysen said. “We were looking for an overarching way to quantify the impact we were having.”
DHS, Hysen said, opted to measure the impact of various initiatives across component agencies aimed at improving customer experience and service delivery through a reduction in time spent by customers accessing those services. Across the department, components simplified online paperwork processes, enabled online submission of forms, made use of pre-populated forms and reused data where applicable.
TSA, for example, incorporated online renewals for transportation workers who typically reapply for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, rather than requiring in-person visits. FEMA replaced legacy software with online submission forms for its National Fire Incident Reporting system, saving fire department personnel a collective 2.81 million hours in reporting their activities. CPB improved the speed for trade customers by incorporating pre-populated data and reusing existing data to dramatic effect, reducing the time to submit required information from three hours down to five minutes.
Even non-Americans have benefitted from DHS’ focus on improving customer experience. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began using pre-filled fields, facilitating electronic information sharing and automatic fee transfers and building a mobile-friendly experience for students and exchange visitors, reducing the application time down to five minutes for certain applicants.
Internally, component agencies worked with the office of the chief information officer and office of general counsel to accomplish these feats. Externally, Hysen said DHS found a willing and able partner in the Office of Management and Budget.
“We had an outstanding, understanding partnership with OMB and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which really embraced this effort even though it created a lot more work for them to review all of our submissions,” Hysen said. “And as a result, we were able to hit that 20 million hours [of burden reduction] target, and even exceeded it by a few hundred thousand hours at the end of May.”
A ‘core part of how we do business at DHS going forward’
Last year, in partnership with the U.S. Digital Service and the Office of Personnel Management, DHS began using a new hiring mechanism called subject matter expert qualification assessment, or SME‑QA, whereby subject matter experts develop required positional qualifications alongside human resources specialists. DHS incorporated the approach for product managers and designers, and ultimately hired 25 professionals from a pool of 1,000 applicants.
“We have people with private sector backgrounds who have been doing this work in Silicon Valley and other places, in the nonprofit and advocacy world,” Hysen said. “And so we’re just getting started there, but I have been really thrilled by the caliber of talent that we have on so far. I get to meet with that group once a week, and it’s always one of the highlights of my week, engaging with them and seeing what they’re building out.”
Hysen said the core of customer experience professionals hired over the past year will form the basis for a new customer experience directorate DHS plans to launch “in the next few weeks.” The new directorate will look to improve the myriad experiences customers have with the agency through mail, by phone, in person and online. It will be headed by acting executive for customer experience Dana Chisnell, and will report to Hysen’s CIO office in an “acknowledgement that an increasing portion of our department’s interactions with our customers are facilitated by information technology,” Hysen said.
“It's going to be an interesting fit, because … they'll be looking at the experiences our customers have in person, on the phone and, in some cases, still by mail, which are things that the CIO shop might not traditionally be involved in,” Hysen added.
While the initial hires will form the base of the directorate, Hysen said DHS intends to keep hiring customer experience professionals across other parts of the department. Spreading those customer-focused skillsets across the department is critical, Hysen said, because “a one-size-fits-all approach is never going to work at an IT department this large.
“Our role at DHS headquarters is to try to create a culture and practice across the department to provide some really targeted support in a few areas,” Hysen said. “But ultimately, our success will live or die on our ability to build this out within our component agencies.”