The federal government serves millions of Americans every day — often delivering aid at critical times. But the customer experience (CX) can be fraught with friction. And the pandemic has exacerbated that. The public’s satisfaction with the government is at an all-time low, in fact. The American Customer Satisfaction Index found that it dropped 2.6% to 63.4%, the lowest rating ever recorded.
The Biden administration intends to change that. In December President Biden signed a sweeping executive order that directs 17 federal agencies to improve CX across 36 areas — everything from filing taxes to renewing passports.
The face of government for most citizens is now through the web. So, much of this CX work will involve replacing legacy systems with modern digital ones. The government must demonstrate it can deliver online services if it’s going to rebuild the confidence and trust that has been lost.
No doubt, it’s a tall order. But it’s also a chance to revamp, even reimagine, how Americans access public services online. The government has an opportunity — an obligation — to do this inclusively. Historically, the government has not effectively built systems for marginalized populations, especially disabled Americans. My recent scan of 2 million federal webpages found more than 12 million accessibility errors, for example.
Rather than making accessibility an afterthought yet again, the government can seize this opportunity to design solutions that truly serve all. What’s more, it turns out accessible design actually improves overall CX tremendously. I’ll explain how — and how to get started — with these key steps:
1. Design for the fringe.
Curb-cuts were designed for wheelchair users, but they benefit us all. Anyone who has pushed a stroller or cart; toted a wagon or a wheeled suitcase; or glided along on roller skates or a scooter can attest to this. Known as the “curb-cut effect,” this concept highlights how accessible design delivers universal benefits.
The same is true for technology. Think about it: 75% of disabled adults go online, according to the Pew Research Center. If you design for them, 100% of people will benefit when they have temporary disabilities — such as impairments after a surgery; or situational disabilities — such as an inability to hear in a noisy environment.
Involve people with disabilities early in the design process. Their lived experience will give the government better ways to build robust interfaces.
2. Be predictable.
There are design elements we all expect when we visit a website — such as underlined hyperlinks and navigation buttons. Make sure you consider how people using assistive technology would use them.
Test with the older hardware and lower bandwidth that many citizens rely on. According to Pew Research, in 2021 23% of the US population didn’t have broadband at home. This is dramatically higher in rural communities. Mobile-first includes testing with the assistive technology that are built into our devices.
For example, if a page needs a spinning icon to indicate there’s a lot of information to load, politely announce that to screen-reader users. Work to delight all of your users.
3. Make it explicit.
Be sure that you’re clearly describing how you’ve considered accessibility in your work. This should include testing with disabled people. But it might also include:
- personas with permanent, temporary and situational disabilities
- user journeys for screen reader users as well as other assistive technologies
- wireframes with instructions for supporting assistive technology
- accessibility statements providing an effective feedback loop with users
Embedding accessibility into your organization will require updates to your agency’s policies, practices and artifacts. This won’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t need to. But stay committed to measurable, transparent progress. As with security, governments need to commit to monitoring for quality and investing in a culture that makes inclusion a reality.
Mike Gifford is Senior Strategist at CivicActions and a Drupal Core Accessibility Maintainer. Previously, he was CEO of OpenConcept Consulting Inc. and Co-founder of CivicTech Ottawa.
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This is a great article! Do you know if we’re seeing the same drop in Customer Satisfaction in other national governments, or is it unique to the US federal government?
Glad you like the article Jacob. I can say confidently that most governments in the world are having trouble keeping up with user expectations. It is difficult to get good data on this, but certainly there are some interesting findings in the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. There is also the OECD’s Trust in government data which can give some useful comparable data.