Service to citizens: Tough road for government

The latest tome on government services to the citizen states: “Federal agencies should improve the customer experience for many reasons.” Hard to argue with that one. That statement is from a new study done by Accenture Digital Services and the Partnership for Public Service. (Listen to the interview with Accenture’s Kathy Conrad). This report and the parade of studies preceding it always seem to show the government a step behind online service in the private sector.

In a way, that’s progress. If the government was offering service like it did in the early 1990s, it would be many steps behind, hopelessly behind even. But it’s fair to say most agencies, in terms of online offerings, are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago. But the private sector keeps getting better.

I’ve used the same shaving handle since 1980. I was doing a story for an industrial magazine about the purchasing methodologies at Gillette. All visitors in those days received a little goodie bag containing an “Atra” handle and blade. But the blades are becoming hard to find because fewer stores carry them. And I don’t like traipsing to stores in all the traffic.

So I decided to try one of the online shaving services, where they ship you supplies every so often, depending on how often you tell them you shave. (They also ask if you shave your head). This outfit, for $3 and shipping, sends you a handle, one blade and a little bottle of shaving gel to try it out. Now I receive a certain quantity of blades in the mail periodically, along with more gel. And not some crummy third-world blade, but a five-blade deal made in Germany.

I picked the “shaving club” founded by the same person who also founded the online glasses site I’ve started using. Having been a four-eyes since the age of 6, I’ve shelled out a lot of money over the years for glasses. Glasses are a far more complex and high-value product than razors. But I received high-quality products at about 30 percent fewer dollars than in chain optical shops, to say nothing of the snooty boutique shops, and it was all online.

The way these sites are put together, the degree of personalization they offer, and the fact that a real person answers questions online or on the phone promptly shows where this is headed: toward an integration of online and in-person services. Many online retailers are opening up physical stores.

The Obama administration has been pushing agencies to up their digital services game. It’s set up all sorts of apparatus like U.S. Digital Services to help agencies leap ahead. For now, the federal government seems stuck in the second generation of online. Generation One consisted of viewable websites. Generation Two brought in transactions. Generation Three has to bring deeper customization, more information about the visitor and his or her history, faster answers to questions, and well-engineered websites to bring it all together.

In the case of the glasses, when I placed my order together with my prescription, either an expert system or someone monitoring soon replied with the suggestion that, given the strength of the correction required, maybe for another few dollars I would want super-refractive lens material so I wouldn’t end up wearing Coke bottle bottoms. Indeed I did — and the outfit made it easy to alter an already-placed order.

As Accenture points out, federal (and state) agencies have an added challenge, namely how to integrate the customer experience so that, from the citizen’s standpoint, the government doesn’t act like the collection of hundreds of separate fiefdoms of which it actually consists. As the report authors said, “Customer needs often cross organizational boundaries.”

More commentary from Tom Temin