Federal CIO Clare Martorana urged government technology leaders this week to take a page from the “Undercover Boss” television program and discover first-hand the experiences and viewpoints of their customers in order to better understand where government needs to make improvements in how citizens best interact with government services.

Speaking at ACT-IAC’s Imagine Nation event on November 8, Martorana hammered home the central message of many of her policy speeches since taking over as Federal CIO earlier this year – that the Federal government needs to move relentlessly toward providing “a simple, seamless, and secure customer experience to the American people” that is on par with their expectations of services provided by the private sector.

“Government interacts with millions of people every single day,” she said, adding, “we need to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes.”

Citing the Undercover Boss program, she urged Federal IT leaders to “be your customer…try to obtain the benefit or service” or the information that your agency provides to the American people. “Spend a few hours in the call center,” she urged. “If you ever ‘double-jack’ with call center agents, it will break your heart, it will make you so angry it will make you want to do something.”

“Take the time, if you’re delivering the services to the American people, to really get involved in the services,” Martorana said. “Ask yourself the basic questions – is it simple, is it intuitive, did it make sense? Did I start on a search engine with something I thought was really easy and land on some website that I don’t understand what they were talking about? Were you really left satisfied or were you left frustrated with that experience?”

“How are you going to work with your agency partners to help remediate those issues,” she asked. “When we focus on those moments that matter for our citizens – like renewing a passport, applying for disaster relief, checking on the status of a tax return – we hold up that mirror to ourselves to see what works well and see what doesn’t work.”

“It’s our job to figure that out as technology executives,” she continued. “Sharing playbooks of  lessons learned across our agencies really helps us come together as a Federal team, united in serving our customers.”

Martorana added that seamless service “also means that customers should never see what’s under the hood,” rather, “things should work, right now.” She continued: “technology completely is the engine that runs our government, but our customers are getting a really scary look under the hood. They are navigating a tangled web, sometimes in person, scanning for phone numbers, going to multiple websites, sometimes looking at government org charts to figure out how to get the service that they need.”

Progress Timelines

Elsewhere in her remarks, Martorana indicated that rapid and substantial customer service improvements are within reach.

“In my role as Federal CIO, I get to imagine what is possible, and I am asking everybody here today, to be unwilling to postpone what we know is possible … to be creative to imagine the day when our citizens can have a simple, seamless and secure customer experience when they interact with the government,” she said.

“That should be possible in 2021,” Martorana emphasized, “but it will take every one of us here … to work together to accomplish that.” She added, “achieving this dream means that we need to have the foundational technology in place at our government.”

Customer service improvements also don’t necessarily rely on putting in place all-new technology first, the Federal CIO said.

“We can do this right now using the technology we already have,” she said. “I’ve seen it work at the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]. We have mainframe, old legacy systems, but we still build great APIs to deliver extraordinary services to our veterans.”

Finally, Martorana said, “we need to find and empower great people. Technologists, procurement, acquisition, financial and privacy colleagues – we need to bring them all together so that we’re designing and launching products and sharing playbooks, so others don’t have to start from that blank piece of paper which can be incredibly intimidating.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.