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Biden seeks a higher standard for federal customer experience. How well is it already working?

President Joe Biden, in signing an executive order to raise the bar on federal customer experience, said last week that much of the work outlined in the EO  “sounds like a simple thing,” but would nonetheless be consequential.

As it turns out, several presidents have found this matter to be consequential, but far from simple.

Biden’s executive order, in fact, marks the latest in a series of efforts over the past 30 years to measure and improve public-facing government services.

The Biden executive order, for example, references a 1993 executive order from the Clinton administration that directed agencies to gather public feedback on how well agencies delivered services, and ensured the government provided a level of service closer to what’s available from private-sector companies.

It also highlights two EOs under the Obama administration, one directing agencies to draft customer service plans, the other calling on agencies to use behavioral science to help identify “opportunities to help qualifying individuals, families, communities, and businesses access public programs and benefits.”

The latest executive order doesn’t set radically different goals than what other administrations have proposed. So what can the White House expect to accomplish this time around that didn’t happen under previous policies?

Ross Nodurft, a former head of the Office of Management and Budget’s cyber team, now the executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, said the executive order sets realistic goals for customer experience across government, as well as clear expectations from the White House.

“We are looking at different things that have been discussed, at one level or another, for several years, in a lot of circumstances. That said, this is a level of energy, a level of focus, a level of hope and resourcing that I have not seen before in my time in government. And I think that’s what excites me about this the most, is that we’ve got buy-in all the way from the top part of the White House, all the way down,” Nodurft said.

Lee Becker, a former chief of staff of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Experience Office, now a vice president and solutions principal for Medallia’s global public sector and regulated industries, said the Biden administration had made its priorities known before the executive order, when it elevated the status of customer experience in its vision for the President’s Management Agenda.

That vision for the PMA calls out customer experience, for the first time, as one of the three central management priorities for the administration. Previous administrations, including the Trump administration, made customer experience one of a range of cross-agency priority (CAP) goals.

“This is the moonshot of our generation: How can we have our government reimagine the way our government works, and really be oriented around the needs of the people they serve,” Becker said.

Most agencies, meanwhile, are trending in the right direction. This year’s federal customer experience metrics from Forrester show the highest overall scores since the company started tracking these metrics in 2015.

Customer experience across the federal government improved by 1.5%, bringing the overall interagency customer satisfaction score to 62.6%

Forrester also found the most number of agencies and programs made statistically significant gains in customer experience metrics this year. These include VA, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Medicare, the Transportation Security Administration, Department of Education, and HealthCare.gov.

However, two of the federal government’s most popular service providers, the National Park Service and the Postal Service reported statistically significant losses this year. USPS saw a 5.35% drop, its largest loss ever in the Forrester index.

Forrester Vice President Rick Parrish said High-Impact Service Providers (HISPs) like VA, TSA and Healthcare.gov have shown consistent improvement year after year. However, Parrish said it’s generally harder for HISPs to improve their customer experience metrics than other agencies.

“Despite the genuinely good, hard work of the customer experience professionals there, these are very complex organizations. That’s one of the reasons why they’re HISPs to begin with, because they’re big and complex, and they do a lot of stuff. And so of course, those are the most difficult ones to improve,” Parrish said.

OMB has designated 35 HISPs across the federal government, due to the volume and types of benefits, services, and programs they deliver to the public. It added eight agencies to the list in September — including the Census Bureau, the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service and Rural Development and the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has tied improvements in customer experience to its ongoing priority to make diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility a central part of government services.

Agencies have until January 2022, under OMB’s most recent update to its A-11 Circular memo, to submit plans to improve the equity of the services they provide to the public.

To address that administration priority, Forrester for the first time broke down federal customer experience along five demographic categories in this year’s index — race and ethnicity, gender, age, income and veteran status — and demonstrated major disparities at both the governmentwide and agency level across all those categories.

The index, for example, found that 62% of people who identify as white said they feel like federal agencies answer all of their questions when seeking assistance, while only 31% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander respondents said they felt agencies answered all their questions.

“Different sorts of people have different needs when it comes to customer experiences. And if you design for the average, you end up designing essentially for nobody, but absolutely coming up with things that work better for certain groups of people than others,” Parrish said.

Parrish said one of the biggest hurdles to improving the equity of federal customer experience has been having the right data. To address that challenge, OMB as part of its latest A-11 update, issued guidance to HISPs directing them to gather data around the equity of the services they provide.

While agencies, and HISPs in particular, have taken steps to gather this data in the past, Parrish said there have been “wide differences” in the quality of these data-gathering efforts.

“Average performance is useful to know, but averages can hide an awful lot,” Parrish said.

To ensure agencies continue to improve their public-facing services, Nodurft said the administration needs to work with Congress to ensure consistent levels for the Federal Citizen Services Fund and the Technology Modernization Fund.

“We have to have a sustained funding model, more robust [funding] in the TMF, more robust funding in the FCSF, and then figuring out how to get commitment from Congress over the course of several years, so that we can run the entirety of this race without worrying about lack of resources to invest over the long term,” Nodurft said.

The Build Back Better Act, in its current form, would give $250 million to the TMF, as well as $250 million to the Federal Citizen Services Fund managed by the General Services Administration and $50 million to OMB’s Information Technology Oversight and Reform (ITOR) fund.

The $2 trillion spending package, however, appears in jeopardy after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said Sunday that he cannot support the bill in its current form.

The Alliance for Digital Innovation, in a letter to OMB sent Monday, warned that current funding levels in the TMF and FCSF “will not be enough to provide an ongoing, modern, and customer-centric digital experience.”

ADI also urged OMB to train the federal workforce to become more proficient with the modern digital services critical to ensuring a higher level of customer satisfaction from the public.

“The workforce providing these services will go beyond our IT community and will require an understanding and fluency in modern systems and technology,” the letter states.

Agencies also need funding, ADI wrote, to ensure the digital services remain secure and not vulnerable to abuse.

“Without providing a secure approach to these core services, the government will likely continue to see significant fraud. Investments in cybersecurity and security development practices must be a core component of any modernization of digital services,” ADI wrote.

Becker said agencies have generally cited a lack of funding as one of the biggest barriers to improving customer experience. He said the lack of funding behind recent customer experience legislation, the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), led to few agencies making its goals a priority.

The 21st Century IDEA, passed by Congress in 2018, set targets for agencies to modernize their websites, digitize paper forms and accelerate the use of electronic signatures.

“We know there are agencies that want to go down this path, and what we’ve seen is typically CX has been an unfunded mandate,” Becker said.

While Becker called 21st Century IDEA a step in the right direction, he said the legislation largely put agency chief information officers in charge of improving customer experience. While CIOs have a role in improving what agencies offer to the public online, Becker said that focus leaves out other perspectives in the broader design and implementation of government services.

“[Customer] experience cannot be led from a technology perspective,” Becker said. “We can’t just look at it from the standpoint of feature and function. We have to look at it from the standpoint of the overall process, the overall service that’s being provided.”

In terms of who could oversee this work in its totality, Parrish last year recommended OMB name a chief customer experience officer. Such an official, he added, would be especially valuable as the administration, through the PMA and its recent executive order, looks at improving customer experience through the perspective of customer “life experiences” that cut across programs from multiple agencies.

“If you’re going to focus on essentially customer journeys that cross agency lines, you need to have stronger central governance around your CX efforts. Otherwise, what happens is individual federal organizations improve the quality of their own piece of that life experience, but in ways that don’t necessarily improve the entire experience from the customer’s perspective, as it crosses agency boundaries,” Parrish said.

The administration lacks a customer experience czar, but several agencies have filled that void within their own bureaucracies.

The General Services Administration, USDA and Census Bureau are just some of the agencies that have chief customer experience officers. Others, like VA, have stood up CX-specific program offices.

Biden’s executive order directs 17 agencies to make progress on more than 30 specific actions, but doesn’t specify who, or what office, should lead these agency efforts.

Nodurft said agencies should continue to have the discretion to deliver on their customer experience improvements on their own terms, without any particular officeholder leading the charge.

“It doesn’t matter what you call the person. What matters is that you have people who have the ability to reach across budget lines, people have the ability to reach across mission ownership lines, and people have the ability to reach across technology lines and tie all those threads together,” Nodurft said.

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