Public trust in government still lags, despite some agency improvements with customer transactions

When it comes to improving customer experience in government, agencies too often focus on individual transactions and not enough on the big picture.

There are pockets of customer experience successes within individual agencies, the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services said in a recent report detailing the challenges government faces in designing equitable services.

The Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid redesigned the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students can now complete the application on their mobile phones, an experience that scored an 89 out of 100 satisfaction rating from customers, the Partnership said.

Trust among customers at the Department of Veterans Affairs has grown 24% since 2016.

But those individual successes often fail to translate into broader trust in government as a whole among members of the public.

“The government should reset its relationship with the public, taking a holistic view of the services it provides and focusing on the customer journey, rather than individual touchpoints or transactions,” the Partnership said. “It suggests such a focus should be equitable and inclusive of all customers, particularly those who may need services most or struggle hardest to access them. This will require agency leaders to expand their perspectives beyond the most visible symptoms of customer experience challenges to address the root causes, a critical step to generating lasting trust and real positive change.”

The Biden administration said it is beginning to take this approach, focusing on the numerous touchpoints that a person might have with multiple agencies when they reach certain stages in their lives, from the moment they’re born to the time they retire.

“One of the things that we are thinking about are all of those unique journeys that we go on as the public and as citizens,” Clare Martorana, the federal chief information officer, said Tuesday at the Partnership’s virtual customer experience summit. “We are creating these moments that matter and then these life experiences that really carry through across the federal enterprise.”

An American who recently turned 18, for example, might be looking at colleges and universities and researching  student loan options. They could be registering to vote or preparing to join the military.

A 65-year-old likely has different experiences, interacting with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and perhaps the Social Security Administration.

“We’re really trying to think about all of those life experiences, tie them all together [and] share experiences among agencies,” Martorana said.

The public, the Partnership said, demands it, particularly as the private sector steps up its own customer service game.

“Our favorite customer brands have certainly accelerated their service delivery during the pandemic,” Martorana acknowledged. “Our customers have noticed, and they’re enjoying the improved experience. So their expectations for us and our ability to deliver an experience on par with their favorite brands has increased too. There’s no going back to the way it was.”

In providing services to the public, the Partnership said agencies should strive to reduce the administrative burden on both the public and the federal workforce trying to offer those services.

The Biden administration has several initiatives underway designed to tackle some of these challenges. An executive order, which President Joe Biden signed on his first day in office, charges agencies with improving the equity of the services they provide to the public, particularly in underserved communities.

Another executive order focused on improving agency customer experience metrics is in the works.

Martorana said agencies must make a concerted effort to identify their customers and meet them where they are. It’s the best way to gain the public’s trust and build momentum for customer experience initiatives, she said.

“We need to show and not tell, using demos not memos,” Martorana said.

For agencies, that process starts by listening to their customers.

“The times that I have been the most highly motivated are when I have done user research and listened in on the calls, listened to an exasperated veteran, often times breaking down and crying,” Martorana said. “I have heard retirees, when I worked at OPM, dialing any phone number, trying to get a human on the phone. It motivated me more than any strategic plan, important meeting and all of the things that we do in our environments to get aligned and try and create progress.”

Again, there are some signs agencies are doing this work.

The Agriculture Department, for example, checked in with trusted community partners to find out how small farmers were faring during the pandemic. USDA used that feedback to create pandemic assistance programs included in the American Rescue Plan, the Partnership said.

CMS met with physicians to get their feedback on a new payment program that it developed.

“We were able to get different perspectives, prioritize the needs of the users of our programs and then incorporate that in our system design, but not only that, in our policy, in our communications and in our training,” said Jean Moody Williams, the director of CMS’s Center for Clinical Standards and Quality.

Agencies should also focus on and work to collect more feedback from members of underrepresented communities, the Partnership said. Efforts to expand this work are underway, as agencies try to meet the requirements of the Biden administration’s day one equity executive order.

Agencies need better ways to collect data about the individuals using their services, as well as additional and easier channels for the public to submit feedback, the Office of Management and Budget said in a July report.

The Transportation Security Administration collects feedback from councils representing a variety of constituencies, including veterans and the LGBTQ+ community, Jose Bonilla, executive director of traveler engagement, said.

Based on that feedback, TSA acknowledged it needed to change the way its transportation security officers interact with members of the traveling public.

The agency recently made it a requirement for TSOs to become certified passenger support specialists before they can advance in their careers. These specialists know how to deal with passenger challenges and how to respond to positive and negative feedback from members of the public in real-time.

“We realized that we had to enhance the training,” Bonilla said. “These coalition groups were actually invited to help us prepare the curriculum for our officers. They worked on that with our training and development office to ensure we were obtaining that insight from them.”

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