If the COVID-19 pandemic brought any sort of silver lining, it might be that it pushed government to rapidly reimagine service delivery – putting efforts to digitize operations into overdrive. From expanding digital signatures to creating a virtual command center at the Small Business Administration to standing up and expanding telehealth resources at Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, examples of digital government response to the pandemic are prolific and varied.

While urgent needs drove rapid digitization over the past year, they are a continuation of government efforts to transform service delivery and – as a result – improve the customer experience.

Now, government must pursue “sustained modernization” of IT services to continue driving change for the better, Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat remarked at a recent digital modernization conference.

Design Thinking, Agile Development, DevOps Fuel Customer Experience Gains

“We have to foster a culture that embraces risk and agile adoption and encourages innovation,” Roat counseled. “Our customers – internal employees [and] the external American public – they expect that delivery to be quick, easy, secure, and an accessible customer experience. It’s a business discipline. We must embed it in everything we do as we interact with our customers, and as we continue to modernize.”

To truly improve the customer experience, “agencies need to look through the eyes of the people consuming their services and work to understand their perspectives,” noted Rob Buhrman, a principal with Grant Thornton. “It’s about empathy and having an understanding of the customer’s journey, moments that matter, and points of friction that create a negative experience.”

“Viewing the journey from the eyes of the customer enables organizations to bridge silos, remove barriers, and improve bottlenecks with end-to-end processes or automation,” Buhrman said. “The solution is not always a digital solution, but digital interactions are less costly than in-person interactions.”

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), for example, Grant Thornton examined call center logs, particularly the comment fields. Using text analysis, the company identified the most frequent pain points for customers accessing website content. With that insight, USPTO immediately made changes to the website, which reduced the need for filers to contact the call center. This ability to self-serve reduces frustration for customers and saves time and money for the agency, Buhrman said.

“Those kinds of ‘innovations’ are very quick, easy to make, and have a huge impact,” he observed.

Buhrman echoed Roat’s call for agile development and called for agencies to embrace design thinking and DevOps to truly deliver against their customer experience goals. “If agencies are not doing those things,” he said, “they’re not going to get the true value of faster delivery, optimized cost, and the future ability to make improvements quickly.”

Customer Experience and Mission Outcomes Go Hand in Hand

Agency leaders often view customer experience as a tradeoff with other priorities, such as mission outcomes, operational efficiency, or responding to public or regulatory pressure for change, McKinsey & Co. said in its pre-pandemic report, “The Global Case for Customer Experience in Government.” But in reality, McKinsey said, customer experience is directly tied to all of those priorities. If agencies improve the customer experience, they also improve mission outcomes, mitigate risk, manage to budget, improve employee morale, and strengthen public trust.

As customer experience improves, government operations cost less and run more smoothly, according to Forrester Research, which also found that more customers engage with government proactively and forgive its mistakes. Satisfied customers are five times more likely than unsatisfied customers to agree that a public service is a good investment of taxpayers’ money, McKinsey found.

Beyond the pandemic imperative, government mandate has reinforced the requirement to tend to customer experience. The 2018 update of the Federal Performance Framework (OMB Circular A-11, Section 280) provided first-of-its-kind guidance aimed at making customer experience management a critical component of agency operations. Its primary focus is 25 high impact service providers (HISPs) across 14 agencies. These 25 HISPs touch nearly every American. The Trump administration eliminated the guidance in December 2020; the Biden administration restored it in March 2021.

“Agencies were clear, and unanimous, in their desire to have the earlier framework reinstated,” Pam Coleman, associate director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), wrote in a blog post, noting that the guidance provides flexibilities in agency goal setting and reestablishes tools to improve customer experience.

The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act also put an emphasis on improving customer experience – and making it equitable.

“Making sure everyone can use the digital products agencies are focused on delivering is a great example of a significant win that can be delivered quickly,” Buhrman noted. “If that’s the goal – to really improve customer service in an equitable way – agencies are going to need to take advantage of management techniques and technologies around design thinking, agile development, and DevOps.”

TMF Is Designed to Improve Customer Experience and Mission Delivery

The Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) can also be a vehicle for improved customer experience, Buhrman observed.

“Typically, IT modernization is viewed as a risk mitigation tool,” he said. “The TMF uses that concept as a starting point, and then seeks true digital transformation: using the new solution to improve the user experience and the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

The $1 billion expansion of the TMF provides an essential boost to Federal IT modernization efforts, but it won’t entirely alleviate the acquisition, management, innovation, and adoption challenges that agencies sometimes face when trying to take advantage of the fund, Buhrman noted.

To help alleviate some of those challenges, Buhrman suggested that OMB and the General Services Administration allocate 1 percent of the TMF money to an innovation fund that would help agencies complete the foundational work on their TMF applications and develop prototype solutions.

The innovation fund would enable agencies to embrace design thinking, which engages user groups, customers, and stakeholders to create a better, more equitable experience that supports the agency mission, he said.

“Design thinking is really just a way to experiment without fear of failure,” he said. “It’s not about spending a ton of money to build a new application, only to find out it doesn’t meet your needs. It’s about using very low-fidelity methods like wire framing and ideation and prototyping to make sure your solutions are feasible, desirable, and viable.”


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MeriTalk Staff