Creating a Citizen Experience Turnaround

By Abby Herriman

The year 2014 was a tough one for federal government customer service. With the issue-plagued rollout of, accusations of poor service at Veterans Affairs, and customer satisfaction ratings for the public sector reaching the lowest point in sixteen years, it’s clear that something needs to change in the way our government interacts with citizens.

While these cases are recent, citizen experience has been a recognized problem for a while. A 2011 executive order declared that federal executive departments should provide services “in a manner that seeks to meet the customer service standard established…equal to the best in business.” In conjunction with this mandate, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) elevated customer service to the status of a Cross Agency Priority (CAP) goal, bringing together a cross section of senior officials to devise common strategies and best practices.

A democratic government relies on its ability to engage with citizens effectively, but meeting the expectations of citizens requires changes on many levels. While the use of technology is critical, there are three areas federal entities should incorporate into their service plans:

  • Improve accountability through effective performance management
  • Integrate channels of communication within and across agencies
  • Build public trust through engagement

With federal customer service ranking second to last in a list of forty industries in the American Customer Satisfaction Index poll, these three focus areas can help ensure that changes implemented in the contact centers and in technology tools will have the desired outcome: building trust and confidence that the federal government will and can serve its people.

Improving Accountability Through Effective Performance Management: Across the private sector, customer service organizations closely monitor dozens of metrics within contact centers to better understand their performance against historical trends. These measures – such as “order defect rate” and “negative feedback rate” – are not as widely or consistently tracked in government. While the Government Performance Results and Modernization Act (GPRAMA) requires agencies to set and track metrics, a 2014 report looking at six agencies found that none of them received a passing score in terms of compliance.

It is critical that agencies begin to see the power in tracking metrics, not just for compliance but also for improving service. While close metric tracking takes an investment in technology, it also needs buy-in that it will have the same outcomes in a “citizen-service” environment as it does in a customer-service environment.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has faced tough scrutiny in its inability to effectively process claims from veterans. As part of its effort to improve service, agency leaders set performance management targets, such as “increase compensation claims processing quality to 89 percent accuracy.” They also aimed to increase the number of disability claims files online from a baseline of 2 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2015. Every process and technology implemented is now evaluated and measured against these (and other) goals to ensure that overall service is improving.

Integrate Channels of Communication Within and Across Agencies: The federal government has a gap to close in terms of online service when compared to the private sector. In a report, “Uncle Sam at Your Service,” one-third of respondents said that the information they received was not consistent across the multiple channels they used to resolve their issue. With 77 percent of consumers expecting to use multiple channels of communication while interacting with a service provider, it is not enough to simply make those channels available (which many agencies are now doing), but to ensure that the same information is provided whether the citizen visits the website, sends an email, or calls a contact center.

This consistency is more difficult in the federal environment because of the complexity of the issues. Take, for example, students seeking get federal aid for college. They will have to interface with people and use data from Department of Education, the IRS, and possibly even Social Security and other agencies to get that aid. One of the most important steps the federal government has taken to achieve consistency, not just within agencies but also between agencies, is the OMB’s establishment of the Customer Service Community of Practice (CoP). This organization is tasked with driving inter-agency collaboration on best practices and common metrics to benchmark cross-agency performance.

Building Public Trust Through Engagement: Citizen service in a democratic society is more than just providing answers; it is allowing the people to have a voice in the process. Agencies need to implement feedback tools such as customer surveys or comment mechanisms. The CoP has proposed implementing a cross-agency feedback tool and is currently soliciting feedback for pilot testing.

There is proof of the impact of these tools. The VBA instituted a customer satisfaction survey in 2010 and with that feedback has identified ninety-seven process improvements, of which fifty-five have been implemented. Across the government, agencies are using crowdsourcing and challenge competitions (such as to encourage citizens to participate in solving the country’s more difficult social and technological challenges. A growing use of social media by agencies is also enabling more real-time engagement of citizens and on-the-spot problem solving.

These three focus areas need to drive the implementation of technology, policy, and process within the federal government to help the public sector meet mandates and, most importantly, citizen expectations.

Abby Herriman is the SVP of delivery and innovation at HighPoint Global.

[From Connection Magazine – May/June 2015]