Government customer experience: A practical guide

How to start bringing CX into the business of government

Shira Kates
Jan 13 · 6 min read

Customer experience (CX) in the private sector has seen a meteoric rise as companies realize it’s the secret sauce to driving brand loyalty — and ultimately, bottom lines. Just consider this: even when people love a company, 59% will walk away after a few bad experiences.

Simply put: people want to feel good about their interactions. This is true about experiences with the government, too. That’s naturally prompting the federal government to embrace CX as one of the most important ways to deliver measurably better services in today’s digital world. So far, 25 federal agencies are committed to proactively improving customer experience.

Standing up a CX program is no small feat. In this post, we’ll cover some fundamental ways to start measuring and improving how people experience your services. If you’re new to this topic, we encourage you to start with our introductory post that discusses the fundamentals of CX in government. Then, dig deeper to learn about the values that power public sector CX.

Now, let’s examine some practical steps to get started.

Start where you are

Designing “with and for the people” is central to better customer service in government — and fortunately, there are several design methods that don’t require a heavy lift. For example, Google Venture-style Design Sprints are a great way to quickly prototype new and improved products and services while larger CX systems are in development. Even brainstorming and co-designing with customers can be meaningful first steps toward CX.

In the private sector, CX has made it easier to root out the cause of service issues — almost in real time. In government, this can be adapted by collecting data on customer satisfaction. Quick feedback surveys can illuminate service blind spots, for example. Asking open-ended questions can be especially informative — customers might offer useful suggestions you never even considered.

If scaling CX seems overwhelming, consider the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF). The TMF lets agencies sustain their legacy systems while they modernize them, or build entirely new ones.

At a recent CX conference, Maria Roat, Deputy Federal CIO for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), pointed to the TMF as an effective way to help budding CX efforts take root.

“We’re seeing success with [TMF] across the board,” she said. “We’ve got to continue to push that across the federal government.”

Bake CX into standard business

Amber Chaudhry, Customer Experience Lead for the Small Business Administration (SBA) says she spent her entire first year at the agency advocating for CX.

On a recent podcast, Chaudhry shared that when the SBA was considering a major IT investment, she encouraged the team to first consider the implications to end users and how they would experience the technology. She was able to prepare a convincing business case. That earned her the green light and seed funding to ramp-up CX at SBA.

“My advice is make sure you’re talking to your CIO, make sure you’re talking to your enterprise architect, your business management office and baking customer experience in all of those processes,” Chaudhry said.

As proof of how far the SBA has come, she points to the latest IT strategic plan, which lists “put the customer first” as its top guiding principle. She’s also working with the business management office to shift its approach to DevSecOps, considering the customer experience before any tech development work is done.

“With our enterprise architect, we’re making sure that when it comes time to putting these technologies through the architect review board — you better be sure that you have an answer to how your technology is benefiting customers, otherwise good luck on getting funding.”

Meet customers where they are

Government, like the public sector, operates with omnichannel service delivery. Often, there’s a phone channel, a “brick and mortar” in-person interaction, a website, and sometimes — as is the case with Medicare — there’s a big book. Agencies need to consider each part of that user journey as one piece of the overall puzzle.

Consider the multiple channels you can use to renew your passport. Your specific “use case” may be typical or perhaps you have a special situation because you live abroad. Or you’re trying to get a passport for a child for the first time. Your hope would be that no matter what your specific needs may be, you can immediately connect to the necessary information and your request will be processed smoothly.

If you start your passport renewal online and finish it in an office, that experience ought to feel connected and cohesive. With a decade elapsed since their last passport renewal, customers may feel anxiety, wondering: Is my information going to follow me? Will it be easy? Can I trust this process? Will it be reasonably speedy?

A service designer lives to deliver a better-than-expected experience that answers these questions with a resounding YES.

Considering each step of an omnichannel service (and asking customers for feedback) is the essence of service design — and CX — and can reveal where breakdowns might be preventing people from accessing valuable benefits.

The Veterans Benefits Administration has been working on this and seeing encouraging results. Adapting to the needs of customers (in this case, Veterans) took on an even deeper meaning during a pandemic when “meeting customers where they are” often means meeting them remotely.

Double down on data

Successful CX programs rely on their ability to capture data today, set goals based on it, and track improvement over time. The enterprise needs to baseline where they are today, and then measure progress on goals in real-time, via dashboards. Automation and modern tools make it possible to continuously track success day-by-day, month-over-month, and year-over-year, without doing a big push to look at annual stats.

Beyond that, data can reveal meaningful trends about which services are being used most, and how customers feel about them. For example, in April the Internal Revenue System (IRS) launched ‘Get My Payment,’ a web tool that let people track their stimulus check payment. As the COVID-19 pandemic was rising, this was critical information for millions of Americans.

The IRS immediately began monitoring usage trends and customer feedback. That real-time data drove content for a stimulus FAQ page and iterative agile application improvements.

This underscores IRS’ bigger commitment to CX. The agency, in fact, has an entire office that’s working to “continuously innovate to transform the taxpayer experience.”

If capturing CX data is new territory, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has laid a foundation. Specifically, the guidance found at A-11 Section 280 spells out the sorts of data that should be collected to track and improve how people are experiencing government services.

The CX road ahead

These starting points will get you on the right track to becoming a customer-centric agency, but of course the CX journey will continue. Contracts will change to support CX, and procurement officers will need to develop skills for acquiring Human Centered Design (HCD) services, as described in GSA’s Customer Experience Services Evaluation and Buying Guide.

As agency CX leaders start to invest in new programs that transform how people experience government, consultancies will need to develop capacity for blending business analysis with customer research, working alongside government staff to develop measurable strategies for CX success. At CivicActions we’re both prepared and excited to support this next step towards more useful and accessible government services.

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