GSA considers text messages as new frontier for better customer experience

A cross-agency team focused on how the federal government can improve public-facing services online is looking at text messages as the new frontier for better customer experience.

As part of the President’s Management Agenda, the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) is looking at how agencies can keep customers in the loop on the status of their government applications through text messages.

TTS is piloting U.S. Notify, a digital notification service that would allow agencies to send customized text messages to their customers.

The team behind the project says agencies won’t need technical expertise to set up the web-based tool, and they could deploy in about 10 minutes.

But the team behind U.S. Notify is taking its time to test out the project, and sees it as a make-or-break moment to improve customer experience across government.

Ann Lewis, director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Services said the U.S. Notify pilot is an attempt to “meet users where they are,” and communicate with the public the same way they expect to communicate with most private-sector businesses.

“Most people expect to get a text message, based on their experience with consumer tech. What we want to do with U.S. Notify is make it possible to layer in SMS messaging into an existing application, without having to wait a few years to rewrite the whole application, to have a new communication mechanism,” Lewis said in a webinar Tuesday.

U.S. Notify could reduce the time and effort individuals spend looking for a status update on federal benefits and services once they apply.

“We know the default is that you have to log into a website, usually by creating yet another separate account to get to some vendor-specific system. And then you have to check it for your status update, to know when you need to do the next thing. Or maybe, best-case scenario, you get an email notification — if you’re lucky,” Lewis said.

Some of the federal government’s most heavily tracked websites include those customers use to track the status of mail and packages delivered by the Postal Service, apply for TSA Precheck through the Transportation Security Administration or renew a passport through the State Department.

GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said U.S. Notify builds on a concept and the open-source code of similar projects launched by the United Kingdom and Canada.

“We picked up both of those and took a look at them, and added to that open-source material. And we’re standing that up in the United States,” Carnahan said. “It’s really just a perfect example of where you don’t have to just keep reinventing the wheel.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched its own version of this concept in 2021, called VANotfiy.

The VA used the platform to notify more than 200,000 veterans how to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines. The department is looking at using VANotfiy to text veterans about monthly benefits payments.

A test demonstration of U.S. Notify the Digital.gov website shows an individual receiving a text message confirming their appointment to receive benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The Digital.gov blog post also states that email and text notifications “are currently underused by public benefits agencies.”

“Barriers to adoption often include the high operational cost of procurement and limited in-house technical capacity necessary to use existing tools, as well as ambiguity around what constitutes legal consent to text or email participants,” the site states. “Even among agencies that are using text or email notifications, there’s inconsistency in the clarity and quality of the messages.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman, the Office of Management and Budget’s associate director of performance and personnel management, said U.S. Notify stands out as an example of the federal government looking to scale up customer experience projects at show promise at individual agencies.

“So much of what is going on in the customer experience space is agencies across the federal enterprise all learning from one another about how they can beg, borrow and steal, copy-paste some of these incredible practices,” Schulman said.

Lewis said the interagency team behind leading customer experience improvements, under the President’s Management Agenda, is trying to prioritize CX projects with the most impact across government.

“If you were to make a giant list of every single government service website that has ever existed, or is still live, and then go through and try and solve all the user experience problems with all of them, you would run out of time in the life of the planet Earth. There’s just so much that’s out there,” Lewis said.

The PMA team is also focused on working with agencies deemed high-impact service providers (HISPs) and “life experiences” that don’t fall exclusively within the scope of a single federal agency.

“It lets us take this vast surface area of government digital services that have been accumulated over the years and figure out, ‘Here’s what’s most important for people. Here’s what has the most impact on people – when and why,'” Lewis said.

Lewis said the PMA team is managing “life experience” projects. Each project, she added, is focused on ensuring application processes work when they’re needed most, and that agencies “lead with compassion” when helping individuals in a crisis.

“If a tornado just destroyed someone’s house, and they don’t have their computer, and they just have their phone, does that website to fill out a disaster relief form actually work on mobile? Sounds like a basic thing. But if five years ago, when the website was built, nobody told a particular vendor to do what or test it, maybe it doesn’t actually work,” Lewis said.

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