Over the past five years, federal agencies have made notable strides in developing a deeper understanding of their customers but have more work to do to create customer experience (CX) mechanisms that can lead to better program outcomes. Too often, we see well-intended government efforts fall short of their purpose because solution architects overlook key customer characteristics. Most importantly, these failures disproportionately impact racial minorities and other underrepresented communities.
In just one example, the federal Paycheck Protection Program failed Black businesses because it did not consider how historically marginalized business owners could most effectively receive information about the program. Especially in instances when speed of delivery is a top priority, it’s easy to miss how traditional outreach and service-delivery methods, unconscious bias and systemic racism would impact minority citizens’ ability to access benefits.
But there is a solution available to all agencies right now: customer experience methodologies. Focusing on customer experience forces solution designers to use data, human-centered design and continuous feedback to improve customer experiences and journeys. This focus on research, people and data enables us to explore issues impacting marginalized groups and racial minorities to create more equitable experiences and deliver better results.
Current government-wide guidance addresses customer experience, including what it is and how it should be measured. What is missing, however, is specific direction on how to capture nuances within these measures that impact marginalized and underserved groups, whose circumstances may not be easily visible within broad or incomplete data sets.
We know that federal government customers are diverse and complex; our stories can’t be captured by generalizations and unsegmented data. Customer analysis and segmentation can help agencies tailor efforts to various customer subsets. Some of the outputs of this research, often called “ethnographic research,” are customer personas and journey maps. These tools enable us to empathize with customers and more clearly understand their desires and motivations as well as barriers, pain points and frustrations. With this understanding, agencies can better conceptualize and design solutions that yield positive interactions and earn customers’ trust.
And there is a significant need to do just that. Forrester recently reported only 45% of federal customers say they’ve had a positive experience obtaining government services and information. Customer analysis and segmentation would help agencies dig deeper into this statistic to understand the patterns and trends driving negative experiences. Are minorities over-represented among those reporting a negative experience? What about those living below the poverty line or in rural areas?
Segmentation can also pinpoint distinctions between and intersectionality within various customer groups, enabling agencies to build tailored solutions that reach more people. By analyzing customer data and prioritizing empathy, decision makers can craft programs that truly meet the needs of all Americans.
Another CX technique that can help agencies achieve better results is human-centered design (HCD) — a structured framework for designing solutions that address the core needs of those who experience a problem. HCD calls for relinquishing all perceived barriers and focusing on both qualitative and quantitative data about what customers think and feel throughout their journey. Multi-disciplinary teams narrow in on a specific problem and ideate broadly, freely and without limitations to develop solutions.
Our nation’s equity challenges are complex and deeply rooted. Meaningful progress will require creative solutions we have not yet been able to conceptualize. For historically underserved minorities, equity focused human-centered problem solving could help create solutions that go beyond our current understanding of what is possible. Government agencies may discover solutions that once felt radical or impossible are actually easy, affordable and more equitable. Government programs should build in mechanisms to collect and quickly address customer feedback and strive to evolve with their customers over time. Better feedback systems that identify and elevate minority groups will provide insight into sub-cultures and trends that may be otherwise difficult to identify. This data is key to building more equitable programs.
Continuous feedback loops can also help government programs earn the confidence of their customers. Last fall, the Pew Research Center found only 20% of Americans trust the government to do what’s right all or most of the time. Committing to gaining a deeper understanding of customers by listening more, especially to minority perspectives, can help government agencies build better systems of transparency, accountability and oversight — the key to building back trust.
The Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to leverage the advances made in federal customer experience over the past several years to advance racial equity and strengthen trust in government. Customer experience methods offer powerful strategies and frameworks to use data, human-centered design, and feedback loops to address unconscious bias and patterns of inequity. Chief Customer Experience Officers throughout the federal government would be wise to invest in these tools and techniques – doing so could unearth new solutions to help overcome systemic racism and longstanding racial inequities in government.
Winta Tewolde and Melissa Hadley are managers with Grant Thornton Public Sector LLC specializing in customer experience and organizational transformation.