Pollution. Poverty. Health. Infrastructure. These are just a few of the extraordinary challenges government face today. With increased citizens demands, coupled with decreased public resources, government is often placed in a very difficult position to adequately meet the needs of its diverse array of citizens. Throw Congressional gridlock into the mix and you have a public whose trust in government is declining to all-time lows.
Making the government more citizen-centered, or customer-service-oriented, is key to combatting to regaining the trust of the public. This is also the basis for a new report, Serving Citizens: Strategies for Customer-Centered Government in the Digital Age, by the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture. Big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) drive customer satisfaction for big companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, creating seamless and personalized experiences. These pleasant and convenient circumstances are probably not the first thing you think of when you think about government, however. But there are some solid strategies that can help public agencies lead the way in creating a customer-centered government.
What is “customer-centered” in the context of government? Looking at these three key features, a public agency is customer-centered when:
- Customers’ needs are the driving force behind service design.
- The agency mitigates complexity on behalf of customers.
- Service is available 24/7 and is delivered how the customer desires, including self-service.
These may seem like minimum requirements for a private – especially tech-centered – organization. The report notes that public agencies, however, face unique challenges and constraints. Some of these challenges included fragmented and outdated IT systems, often exacerbated by limited funding and appropriation silos that require funding to be spent on very specific categories. Government must also seriously consider privacy and security concerns, and faces restrictions on collecting customer feedback that can involve 6-9 month approval processes. The important thing to note is that none of these challenges are insurmountable.
In fact, the report lays out several strategies to help agencies overcome these obstacles and create a more customer-centered government:
- Create a consistent customer experience. This can include building a shared knowledge database of FAQs across multiple agencies or programs to ensure that customers get consistent answers and guidance. At the moment, the burden is often left on the citizen to try to understand and navigate confusing websites.
- Share customer information. Streamline processes and create an integrated view of the customer. For example, establish a shared customer relationship management (CRM) system to provide a single view of customers’ interactions across the This can leverage data across the agency and set up a “no wrong turn” experience.
- Personalize services. The goal is to allow customers to quickly complete transactions and find relevant resources. Agencies can develop a digital “wizard” or screening tool that collects customer information and tailors interactions based on needs. For example, the Export-Import Bank is in the process of implementing digital tools to provide customers with personalized information, so they are more efficient in finding resources. This can also help public agencies save money by deflecting unneeded/incorrect service requests.
- Regularly collect customer feedback to improve services. Using surveys, focus groups, and conducting usability tests will solicit feedback from the people who use them digital services, and ultimately create stronger customer experiences. “Data without insight is just noise. Insight without action is just empty talk,” said Christopher Zinner, Managing Director at Accenture and contributor to the report. It is critical to make customers part of the process right from the beginning.
And this isn’t all just talk. There are already a handful of innovative public agencies that are leading the way in creating a customer-centered government.
The Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP), led by FEMA, connects information from 17 agencies and over 70 programs to help disaster survivors. The site aims to streamline the process for applying for assistance and integrate the systems to help people avoid repeating the same applications. “We want the disaster survivor to be able to provide all the information in a single online session and have that data distributed to all of the agencies that will potentially touch that person’s case file and provide them with assistance,” said Karole Johns, DAIP’s program manager.
USA.gov is a government-centralized web portal led by the General Services Administration (GSA) to create a “front door” of government’s online presence. The site aggregates information from all levels of government – with topics ranging from passports to health insurance to jobs and training – in order to help customers access services and contact relevant agencies. The platform served over 66 million individuals in 2013 and (impressively!) rivals Twitter as one of the most linked-to sites on the Internet.
The customer-center approach exemplified by the examples above is obviously beneficial to customers, but to the government as well, since providing effective services is core to many agencies’ missions. Plus, better customer service not only leads to greater satisfaction with and trust in the government, but can also lead to public cost savings.
Learn more and read about additional customer-centered public services here.
Photo credit: Aaron Stidwell Flickr.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rankingfuuta/.