USDA launches digital strategy playbook to streamline customer experience overhaul

A governmentwide push to improve the quality and scope of public services, available on agency websites, has gained momentum during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Agriculture Department, for example, the lead agency in the Trump administration’s overhaul of customer experience, has launched a digital strategy playbook that gives its subcomponents seven criteria to improve the services they provide online.

USDA officials based the document off the U.S. Web Design System launched by GSA’s Technology Transformation Services in January. It looks to give new dot-gov sites a familiar look and feel that users can navigate seamlessly on their mobile devices, but still gives agencies some creative leeway.

Simchah Suveyke-Bogin, USDA’s chief customer experience officer, said Monday that the agency created the strategy to give designers concrete ways to meet the customer experience goals of Congress and the Trump administration.

“We ended up understanding that there is a place that people need to go and a place that needs to be a little bit more clear of what to do and the direction to take,” Suveyke-Bogin said in a virtual conference hosted by TTS.

The playbook stands out as USDA’s effort to make it easier for its customers to find the services they’re looking for online. USDA last year began rolling out more features on Farmers.gov, a one-stop-shop aimed at better connecting farmers with services like farm loans.

But to get this far in improving the agency’s digital experience, Suveyke-Bogin said USDA’s chief information officer and the secretary’s office has spent the past few years bringing together webmasters and other website personnel to “jumpstart” website modernization across the entire agency.

During the initial phase of this project, USDA discovered its web presence had expanded to more than 1,200 domains.

‘Growing recognition’ of customer experience in government

The White House has made better customer experience in government a top priority in the President’s Management Agenda, and the Office of Management and Budget has identified 25 High Impact Service Providers across government.

Congress, however, gave agencies an added push last year in passing the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), which set deadlines for agencies to adopt electronic signatures and migrate away from paper-based processes.

During the pandemic, several agencies have significant progress in meeting those goals. But despite this progress, the federal government still has some catching up to do to compete with the private sector.

Amira Boland, the Office of Management and Budget’s lead of federal customer experience said customer experience scorecards from Forrester and ACSI show that the federal government still lags behind all other categories – including utilities and state government. However, she said that agencies are “closing the gap” and taking significant steps to improve customer experience.

“There’s a growing recognition that experience matters in government, even though we are a monopoly provider in many cases, and that people have to pay their taxes every year. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be thinking about the customer experience that doesn’t help us deliver a more effective and efficient government,” Boland said.

Telehealth ‘more vital than ever’ during coronavirus pandemic

The web design tools provided by TTS have given agencies a strong foundation to build mobile-friendly websites more efficiently, and helped the Department of Health and Human Services stand up a new website in April on telehealth.

Heather Dimeris, the deputy associate administrator of the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, said Telehealth.HHS.gov gives providers and patients guidance at a time when the telework as a service is “more vital than ever.”

“When you look at telehealth in just the last seven months or so, we’ve leaped about seven or eight years into the future when it comes to policies and advancing telehealth,” Dimeris said. “What might sound to many like just dry, obscure flexibilities and regulations and reimbursement is translating into millions of Americans getting access to health care more safely and more conveniently, and we want everyone to know that.”

Forest Service makes national forests more accessible

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has launched Open Forest, an online service that allows users to obtain a permit to cut down a Christmas tree in a national forest.

Anne Peterson, the director of experience design at GSA’s 18F service, said the project coincided with a push by the Forest Service to broaden and increase the public’s access to public lands and reduce administrative burden.

Prior to launching this service, the vast majority of permits were purchased in-person at a stand outside a national forest or through a vendor.

“Basically, the Forest Service felt like it was playing catch up in this area when they started working with us. I can say with confidence, they feel like they’ve made up ground at this point,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the Forest Service is looking to expand Open Forest to allow outfitters taking groups into national forests to apply for special-use permits, and for individuals to obtain pilots to gather firewood in national forests.

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