GSA designing, deploying tools to help agencies treat citizens as customers

The Office of Management and Budget has told agencies to rethink the ways in which they interact with the public and undertake a more customer-focused approach to the citizens they serve. The General Services Administration says it’s here to help.

As one of fifteen separate cross-agency priority goals the Obama administration updated last year, OMB told agencies to use technology to figure out who their customers are, determine how those citizens want to access government...

READ MORE

The Office of Management and Budget has told agencies to rethink the ways in which they interact with the public and undertake a more customer-focused approach to the citizens they serve. The General Services Administration says it’s here to help.

As one of fifteen separate cross-agency priority goals the Obama administration updated last year, OMB told agencies to use technology to figure out who their customers are, determine how those citizens want to access government services, set clear standards for customer service and then ensure sure those standards are being met.

Several agencies have already made significant progress against those goals, said Martha Dorris, GSA’s deputy associate administrator for innovative technologies. Senior job titles which closely resemble the chief customer officer role that’s already commonplace in industry are becoming more prevalent throughout government.

But some agencies still are getting started, so GSA is readying various tools for general government use, including one called Voice of the Customer, due for deployment soon.

“It’s going to give you all kinds of products and materials to tackle the first phase of this: understanding your customer and getting a handle on all the resources that are available across the federal government to do that,” Dorris said Wednesday during a federal customer service conference hosted by Government Executive. “We are trying to put together not only all of those products and services, but also skills. People really do want to know where to start, and as we learn more, we’re sharing it.”

GSA also thinks it can help agencies better understand the populations they serve without running afoul of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), which prohibits agencies from asking questions of their customers unless they’ve gone through an ironically paperwork-intensive process involving a months-long period of prior notice and public comment.

To that end, this week, it launched a pilot program called Feedback USA which lets federal customers give instant reviews – on a purely voluntary basis – through automated kiosks installed at State Department passport locations and Social Security offices about the federal customer experiences they’ve just gone through.

“And we’ll also be going into airports soon,” she said. “So we’re going to start getting real-time data to see what the experience is, and then those agencies can make recommendations. That’s been staffed by the GSA chief customer office team working with OMB and the CAP goal.”

The Feedback USA pilot will last for one year and will be tweaked at least once every three months with usability upgrades.

Dorris said GSA also wants to help agencies understand their online audiences in a deeper way than they do now, including how citizens are using their websites, which portions of existing sites are proving useful and which are not.

Via its Digitalgov.gov service, GSA is now crunching statistics from 4,000 separate federal websites about how those sites are being used and how agencies can make them better.

“The digital analytics program is a required program for federal websites, and it allows you to see your key performance indicators on a dashboard,” Dorris said. “But we need to provide it to agencies in way that doesn’t require every agency to get a PRA waiver every time they want to use it. That’s still one of our challenges, but once we do that, agencies will have a tool that will answer a lot of the questions raised in the Digital Government Strategy, and they’ll have more data on which to make decisions.”

Even though many federal websites still don’t offer a customer experience that would be deemed acceptable in the private sector, Dorris said the federal government’s biggest opportunity for improvement on the customer service front is still in old-fashioned call centers.

“If somebody doesn’t answer the phone at the IRS, the Social Security Administration’s going to get that call,” she said. “And if they get too many calls, they can’t actually process their disability claims. So whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. We all impact each other whether we like it or not.”

Indeed, even if federal agencies manage to create online experiences that overcome the government’s reputation of only serving citizens via frustrating exchanges of snail mail, phone trees and endless hold music, they’ll need to continue serving some populations that have gotten used to that system and have no desire to take their transactions online.

Tom Allin, the veterans experience officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the streamlining of call centers is, in many ways, a tougher problem than fixing customer-unfriendly websites. On the Internet, obsolete and poorly-functioning web pages can be automatically redirected to new, more sensible multipurpose portals that serve as a one-stop-shop, and at least in theory, connect visitors to exactly the information they’re looking for within a few clicks.

Streamlining phone contact isn’t so easy, especially if you’re an agency that’s allowed 200 call centers and 950 separate toll-free numbers to proliferate over the decades, as VA has.

“We’re not going to get down to a single 800 number, because if a veteran’s been calling the same number for their pharmacy benefits for the past 15 years, we don’t want them to have to learn a different number,” Allin said. “We have [Veterans Benefits Administration] call centers and [Veterans Health Administration] call centers, and eventually figuring out what the enterprise approach to call centers should look like is going to be an interesting process. Hopefully we can get that done by the middle of next year.”

VA, given that its customer population is composed predominantly of older Americans, is unlikely to eliminate the need for call centers anytime in the next few decades solely by redirecting its beneficiaries to self-service websites.

So too with agencies like the Social Security Administration and others whose customers are less likely to use the Internet for most of their interactions with the government.

But Ruby Burrell, SSA’s chief strategic officer said agencies’ assumptions about the best way to engage with citizens hasn’t necessarily been based on the best evidence.

“We have customer service in our DNA, but a lot of times what we’ve meant by customer service has been the processes that made the most sense inside our own agency, not what was best on the outside. We’ve now gathered enough data that’s compelling enough to tell us we have missed the boat in a lot of cases,” she said.

As part of an extensive self-examination of that agency’s services over the past year during the buildup to a strategy called Vision 2025, officials found a strong propensity even among its older customers to engage with the agency over the Internet if they were given the option.

“We’re trying to move as much as possible toward digital services and we’re getting a lot of pushback from a lot of places, saying our customers are not ready for that, but that’s not what the data shows,” she said. “53 percent of the seniors who file for retirement already file online. 75 percent of the folks who file for Medicare file online and 50 percent of the folks who file for disability already file online. The customers’ behavior is already telling us that we need to move, and they’re looking for us to come up with some really good services that are convenient and safe.”

 

 

Related Stories