Will 2021 be the year of government customer experience?

The incoming Biden administration should have no trouble connecting the need for better citizen experience and how to fund it. Administrations since that of George H. W. Bush have pursued better service.

At this moment, the Trump administration states on Performance.gov: “Federal customers range from small businesses seeking loans, to families receiving disaster support, to veterans owed proper benefits and medical care. They deserve a customer experience that compares to — or exceeds — that of leading private sector organizations.”

The private sector bar has kept rising over the years. The government has in some sense kept pace, but it always seems to lag.

I was thinking about customer experience after we recently bought, online, one of those gym-grade stationary bikes equipped with a high definition screen on which you join live or recorded spinning, weightlifting, or yoga-ing sessions led by trainers who are stars of the sweat realm.

Talk about customer experience. On delivery day, a van painted in the vendor’s colors and adorned with its logo, arrived on time. A friendly crew of two, suitably masked, hauled the device into the house, brought it downstairs, set it on the designed location (complete with new rubber flooring), leveled it, plugged it in, programmed in our account, and gave us a complete tutorial.

What’s more, the software and design of the whole ecosystem is astoundingly good, in a world where most software is mediocre.

Contrast that with, say, dealing with a motor vehicle or any bureau in Washington, D.C., or Maryland; or with trying to reach an unemployment office, getting information on — God forbid — a COVID-19 vaccination. Taxation sites have been non-available for hours or days.

No one expects the government to match Peloton, which operates in a highly competitive market, when acquiring government services, which are generally monopolies. I never expected Seema Verma to deliver my Medicare card personally to my home on a satin pillow.  But within the realm of what you can fairly expect from government, too many agencies fall short, whether through unavailability, complex software, or poor system design. This is borne out in surveys and in many people’s personal experiences. So 2021 seems like a perfect time to reinvigorate the customer experience drive.

The federal government is mostly better than states and cities, but you find weird gaps there, too. For instance, to get that Medicare card you must start at the Social Security Administration. To its credit, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sends you to SSA, where the subsequent walk-through is pretty good.

It’s perfectly understandable to those who know the government’s complex plumbing why you’d start at Social Security for a benefit from a different department. Yet for decades federal practitioners have talked about how the tangled organization of the government should not be evident or relevant to citizens seeking something.

Certain government services are covered by so many laws and regulations that complications become inevitable. Therefore a technical goal for better CX is to automate all of the background, intergovernmental cross-checks so the citizen only has to deal with one entity. Here again, some agencies do that quite well. Most states, for example, deal with the federal background checks and fingerprint matching and whatever else goes on when you purchase a firearm, where the entry point for registration is the state police.

SSA may in fact be on course to direct more resources to improving customer experience as part of its multi-year IT modernization drive. I spoke with Cisco Distinguished Fellow Alan Balutis, who chaired a study group commissioned by the Social Security Advisory Board to look at the agency’s modernizing plan. Balutis, himself a retired career federal IT practitioner, said that SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul told the study panel he wanted a greater emphasis on customer service.

“So the modernization plan was revamped, under his guidance to pull out, call out those parts of the plan that focused on citizen service. And those were made an immediate focus six to nine months,” Balutis said.

“But,” he added, “I think it’s one thing to say that citizen services are most important initiative. And it’s another thing to put in place, a structure and a rigor and discipline that says, ‘Where are we now? Where do we want to move to? How are we going to measure that? What constitutes success? And why have we picked these particular indicators of citizens service and these particular metrics as our most important way of achieving that?'”

The result was the recommendation that Social Security create a customer service office to really direct and focus those efforts. It has a good base to start from. For example, it established the “My SSA” program years ago.

Also at nearly every agency, the need to offer better online services is intertwined with the need to update applications and IT infrastructure in a big way. And nobody has all the money they need.

This is where Balutis and other observers point out agencies’ authority to create their own working capital funds. No need to rely on some massive, and never-to-happen funding by Congress of the Technology Modernization Fund.

So as the Biden administration presumably continues the multi-administration effort to push along agency IT up to day, it should push more agencies to set up these funds.

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