For businesses, better customer experience (CX) is an obvious way to compete for clients, but government agencies’ lack of competition for customers can discourage them from taking the leap to embrace CX. From funding models to measures of success, the industry model for CX does not fit neatly into the public sector – nor should it.
“There are fundamental differences between what has been learned in industry for customer experience and what we are experiencing in the federal government,” said Chad Sheridan with the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area’s Business Center. Speaking at GovLoop and Carahsoft’s Citizen Experience & Engagement Seminar, Sheridan added, “We have a fundamental difference in the pace, organization, and business model of the federal government than industry has in implementing quality customer experience.”
These differences have caused a unique set of challenges for government employees as they try to put CX first. In the public sector, an employee’s ability to create change is not promised and opposition is practically guaranteed.
“We need to recognize that to drive change in customer experience, you’re a virus,” said Sheridan, who serves as Chief of Information Solutions Service Delivery and Operations. “The fundamental organization and culture and nature of the federal government is not geared towards improving the customer experience.”
Sheridan clarified that this is a structural issue. Many government employees are incredibly passionate about improving CX, but backlash is to be expected because breaking the norms of the public sector is difficult.
Further, even if the higher-ups at an agency are on board, it’s likely still not enough to meaningfully progress. Ideas need to be pushed through day-by-day and hour-by-hour using all resources available to drive change. Receiving the go-ahead to create better CX is just the beginning of the process.
Sheridan shared one of the USDA’s recent successes in CX, the launch of Farmers.gov. The agency wanted to bring a better customer experience to the farming community through convenient digital channels. The website includes loan portals, disaster recovery assistance, help with the H-2A visa program sponsoring temporary immigrant works in the fields and other resources that prioritize farmers’ needs.
Although Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was on board with creating a more customer-focused program, working with other agencies almost stifled the USDA’s progress. Sheridan discussed how parts of the website, like the portal simplifying the application for H-2A visas, were a collaborative effort with other departments. But other secretaries’ hesitation to embrace a CX-oriented interface and the interconnectedness of government agencies were initially a roadblock to innovation. The departments eventually came to an agreement on implementation, and Farmers.gov continues to be a successful resource for the farming community.
The website also requires consistent maintenance and dedication from the USDA team as a whole. This example proves that having your boss vouch for the plan is important, but it’s the boots on the ground that make it possible.
Innovation relies on a special type of creative and courageous employee. They must be dedicated and willing to fight to put citizens first. The government isn’t designed to provide user-friendly CX, so public sector employees must push their organizations to create an intuitive, human-centered and accountable CX experience for the communities that they serve.
Sheridan urged the audience to channel their motivations and resist the fundamental structures holding them back. “No one’s going to come save you. The odds are stacked against you. The business model won’t fit,” he said. “Your persuasive powers will overcome any brute force that exists in your way, but first it comes from within.”
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