The Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. is home to the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. is home to the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices. Melodie Yvonne/Getty Images

Exit interview: OMB’s Customer Experience guru Amira Boland

Boland was the first to take on the role of customer experience lead at the White House, and she sees great potential even beyond her departure.

Since 2018, Amira Boland has worked at the Office of Management and Budget as their first-ever federal customer experience lead. She led the implementation of a 2021 CX-focused executive order that mandated that “improving service delivery and customer experience should be fundamental priorities” of government.

Boland recently left government to be the chief of staff at the New Practice Lab, part of the think tank New America. She spoke with Nextgov/FCW about her time in government, lessons learned and more. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov/FCW: How did you get into this work? You were researching recruitment to terrorist organizations, right?

Amira Boland: I was really looking at Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda — recruitment of these Middle Eastern, North African terrorist organizations… In many instances, particularly in the Hamas and Hezbollah area, [they] were service delivery providers, and that was who people rely on for their basic needs. So there was also a huge behavioral science component to that, of their fundamental understanding of how people process [and] act on information. It was interesting to me to see the difference between that and a lot of our counterterrorism strategy, and the gap there of understanding truly what was driving support for those organizations and their communities.

Amira Boland (Photo credit: Verena Radulovic)

I was thinking about: “What are positive applications of this work? How could government better use behavioral science, human centered design, to think about how we design services and deliver them in a way that builds trust, shows people that their government is working for them and is accountable to them?” 

You’ve got to prove democracy works.

Nextgov/FCW: What are the biggest challenges you think the federal government has in making these improvements to service delivery?

Boland: I think we still have to see that this is the fundamental orientation that everyone must have in their heads at all times. 

Having the words of the President say that in executive order was game changing because we have the policy that the means of government — budgeting, finance, all of that — are toward the end of service to the American public. I think sometimes in government we get so caught up on the means because it's what we can control and where we feel comfortable and where a lot of the incentive system lies.

We have to get better about having the accountability system be oriented toward the ends of: “What are the outcomes of our programs? Are our programs delivering on the mission that they were statutorily created to do?”

I still think a lot of the incentive system is oriented around those means, and people are rewarded for staying in their lane and not taking risks and not designing for perfection and program integrity at the start, which creates all these undue burdens.

Nextgov/FCW: How should we measure progress? Sometimes I'll hear people point to trust in government, or service metrics at agencies, or shaving off hours that people are spending doing paperwork or measuring administrative burdens.

Boland: Trust is dependent on whether or not someone voted for the president. Trust is dependent on whether or not people feel like their potholes got filled in time, whether or not they like their school board and their school budget, you know? Trust is a very noisy measure. It's an important measure — and that's why we have it, and it is a north star — but there's obviously caveats with that. It's a hard measure to move because it is so noisy.

So I think, the next era — and our team is thinking about this — is: “How do we think about service-level performance?” That's another thing that the government has not done well… The people hold us accountable for the performance of our services, and we think about accountability, as an institution, in Congress, as at these program account levels, right? They’re disconnected from the way people actually interact with government. 

Now that agencies are warmed up to the vocabulary and the concept of what service design is, I think we can now have the more sophisticated conversation of, “What does performance look like at the service level?” That includes the ability to map a journey, see where there's different drop off points.

I think the next frontier also, and I'm excited to see what the team does on this… [is] we need to come up with a concept of how we're integrating feedback data, digital analytics data, 21st century IDEA compliance data, 508 compliance data, and then operational data, so that you can have a holistic picture of how is my service performing.

Nextgov/FCW: How do you think about changing that incentive structure in the government?

Boland: The VA is a really good model for this because their secretary is constantly aware of how their services are performing across the country… and he is driving that accountability within his organization.

Then, of course, the [Government Accountability Office] just did the report on us… It was a very positive report. That was great internally, because we can show: “Look… this creative, new work that we're doing is not a scary thing that we're going to get punished for. It's actually a thing that we're getting positive feedback on.” So that's like accountability from the audit side. 

There's like the Hill side, which is an extremely political environment, but I think to the extent that we've actually found a really good bipartisan accountability on passport renewal, for example, last summer, where you saw senators of both parties talking about, “We need to do online passport renewal. We're really encouraged by the pilot”... There was a deep understanding of what went into the service delivery that I think helped drive positive attention toward performing better.

Then, obviously, there's public attention. So those are sort of the four lanes that I think about,  and how do you get incentives going in all four of those lanes?

Nextgov/FCW: Do you have any thoughts on the Government Service Delivery Improvement Act, which recently passed the House? It would require a service delivery lead at OMB.

Boland: The ultimate way to sustain this work and this effort is for Congress to pass legislation on this topic. We have been working with the Hill since — the earliest memory I have is 2017 — on different versions of [CX-related acts]. I have been encouraged that there's been so much bicameral, bipartisan involvement. However, it's been disappointing that nothing's crossed the finish line yet. 

There are a couple of key things that would be really useful to make sure that we do... Those are statutorily creating the responsibility of both OMB to be held accountable for customer experience and also for agency heads to be accountable for customer experience. I don't think that getting into the nuances of org design is a helpful conversation, but just statutorily having that responsibility. 

I faced the battle of having to defend doing CX work in competition with other statutory responsibilities that agencies have. When [agencies] are facing competing priorities, and they're feeling that their budgets are resource-constrained, they tell me, “Well, this isn't a statutory thing I have to do.”

Nextgov/FCW: How you think about the sustainability of this work? 

Boland: I think that this administration is at a point that every administration comes to in their term where they have to decide, where are they going to ensure that there is sustainability and infrastructure to continue the work that they started.

In this administration, we've had a ton of activity. We've had great teams that we've been able to stand up. We've been able to build out the team a bit here. However, it is all somewhat temporary, and so I think it's a decision point now as to [what] level of commitment do they have to continuing this capacity at OMB and in what form. We need people at the center of government that can help to coordinate these complex, cross-agency efforts… and we need to continue to build out that talent function here at OMB.

Nextgov/FCW: How much does that change depend on the election outcome?

Boland: I'm really encouraged by how seemingly non-partisan this work is… You can go all the way back to Bush I and see how since that presidency, every presidential administration has done something in this space… I feel like, and I have to hope that this is an area where we can continue to have support, irrespective of which administration is in power.

Nextgov/FCW: Is there a need for a CX strategy? That’s something that comes up in conversations I have, especially about the state side of this equation. How do states fit into this? 

Boland: It's been really amazing to see the superpower of the federal government to convene a delivery system. We've seen this work so well in the zero-to-five life experience… This idea of the federal government convening the delivery system around an actual customer problem, I think, is the future for this. 

There's a real moment and opportunity here for thinking about the federal capacity to deliver… We finally now have capacity in government, like the U.S. Digital Service, like [the Technology Transformation Service].

How do we organize that, all of those arms, into a cohesive path forward?… Who's delivering on what types of issues? The difference between the projects that USDS does versus the Centers of Excellence versus 18F — that could have a more cohesive strategy. But they were all startups, right? Now we're at the part where everyone's growing up, and so now we can figure out the next era.

Nextgov/FCW: What’s happening at OMB as you’re leaving?

Boland: We are so grateful to the Department of Veterans Affairs for giving us one of the most incredible people that could be stepping into this role. Barbara Morton, [deputy chief veterans experience officer], is going to be here, acting, to help manage the transition and bring on a new federal customer lead.

Nextgov/FCW: What keeps you up at night?

Boland: The thing that keeps me up at night is just really… ensuring that we have the right type of talent permanently present at the center of government to help coordinate and drive this work.

Nextgov/FCW: And what makes you hopeful?

Boland: When I was writing my goodbye email and interacting with colleagues who were coming to say goodbye, the thing that just made me so emotional was… how many people I didn't expect the customer experience work had helped them do a thing — whether it was in their agency, or at an interagency meeting, or even budget examiners at OMB — stories I had never even heard of or known, that this movement had empowered them to do something different and something amazing. And I think now everyone understands what these words mean now. The first big push of a movement is people understand the concept and know how to use the words, and now we'll just see what that unleashes.

It’s a testament to career civil servants across multiple administrations who have been hungry for this and have been driving it independently in so many different ways… There's so many great people that are now carrying this mantle.