Why technology alone can’t solve the government’s customer experience problem

Customer experience (CX) has been a buzzword in corporate boardrooms for several years, as companies look for ways to meet consumer expectations shaped by Amazon, Apple, and other tech giants. Now, the term is catching on in the public sector as well.

Forward-thinking agencies have realized that the expectations Americans have as consumers also frame their interactions with the government, and the President’s Management Agenda has made improving those interactions a top priority. So why are federal agencies still struggling to catch up to airlines, insurance companies, and other private sector organizations when it comes to CX delivery?

Like many of their private sector counterparts in the early days of the CX revolution, agencies are heavily focused on making technology investments to solve their CX problems. However, they seem to be forgetting that technology is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It’s a tool that can help fulfill a promise to stakeholders — but what is that promise, and who are those stakeholders?

Defining the government ‘customer’

In the private sector, CX is a differentiator that can generate engagement and loyalty in highly competitive markets, reducing customer acquisition costs. Most importantly, it can directly drive revenue. Research has shown that consumers are willing to pay up to 16% more for a product or service that is accompanied by an optimal experience.

But why should it matter to government agencies? The Office of Management and Budget’s most recent update to Circular A-11 guidance provides some clues.

The latest update expands the definition of “customer” to include all individuals, businesses, and organizations that interact with government agencies (including federal employees). It also outlines the multitude of interactions that might comprise CX. The understanding is that by focusing on these stakeholders and optimizing these interactions, agencies can gain public trust, adapt objectives to better align with constituent needs, gain valuable feedback to continually improve performance, and enhance engagement with contractors.

In the private sector, the elements of a superior CX are speed, consistency, friendliness, and perhaps most importantly, a human touch. The companies that can deliver these again and again are ultimately able to construct a perception that permeates interactions with all stakeholders, whether partners, shareholders, or the general public. CX is the delivery of a brand promise. Without it, that promise is broken. But CX without a brand promise becomes nothing but a positive interaction that’s quickly forgotten. And that’s what federal agencies seem to be missing.

The people problem

Cloud platform providers and consultancies have done an excellent job pitching technology as the government’s solution to CX, and the digital tools they provide can indeed help improve stakeholder interactions. But again, technology isn’t the solution; it’s merely a component of one.

To be clear, many leading brands are using the same tools now being deployed in the public sector to meet customer expectations for fast, seamless experiences. But these brands are also deliberate about crafting their brand promise, and use that to guide the way they implement technology. Agencies, in contrast, seem solely focused on the technology — and recent contract awards suggest that trend will continue.

Take for example last year’s VA Customer Experience award worth up to $244 million over five years. It includes a solid lineup of capable contractors who have all the technical prowess needed to develop and implement a robust CX platform that will undoubtedly enhance the VA’s digital capabilities. Yet what’s notably missing from the team is an organization that has the marketing and branding expertise to help put that experience into a larger, more meaningful context for end users.

The VA, perhaps as much as any federal agency, desperately needs the ability to connect with stakeholders in a way that doesn’t prioritize their expectations of a digital experience, but rather their humanity. Digital marketing firms—including many of those that already have deep experience working with public sector clients—specialize in exactly that. Where are they?

More recently, FEMA released its RFQ for a BPA for “a full array of customer experience and operational improvement services”, citing a need to improve CX across all Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration processes that involve customer interactions. By limiting responses to management consultancies, FEMA is denying qualified marketing communications firms the chance to demonstrate their robust CX capabilities—capabilities that are enhanced by these firms’ expertise in human-centered design and communications. That’s another missed opportunity for a federal agency that sorely needs to improve its connection with key stakeholders and the public at large.

The federal landscape has changed dramatically over the past four years, as government spending has been consolidated across significantly fewer agencies. As a result, many agencies have lost touch with the people they’re meant to serve. Others, with a myopic focus on digital transformation as their primary objective, have lost sight of their principal missions. Rebuilding those connections will be critical in the months and years ahead, but technology alone can’t do it. To truly be a government of the people, for the people, by the people, federal agencies must place a greater focus on the one key element of CX they seem to be forgetting: the human touch.

Mike Kapetanovic is the founder of GrowthLab, a business development consultancy aimed at helping federal contractors win work in the federal market.

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