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Investing in Citizens

Citizens are central to the government’s mission and operations. They fund agencies and provide purpose to government workers, so serving them effectively is paramount. But figuring out how to meet citizen needs, especially when technology is constantly evolving, can be challenging. In a recent GovLoop DOROBEKINSIDER, this panel shared best practices for improving the citizen experience in an increasingly digital world:

  • Nicole Blake Johnson, Managing Editor, GovLoop
  • Mariela Melero, Associate Director of Customer Service and Public Engagement, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS)
  • Bernetta Reese, Digital Lead, Agriculture Department (USDA)

The Importance of Maximizing the Customer Experience

Customer experience is a key part of modernizing service delivery. As agencies prioritize their modernization efforts, many are deciding to “fix what will have the biggest impact in helping the public,” Blake Johnson explained.

As times change, citizen expectations evolve. Now, people expect functioning digital services in all aspects of their lives. “We often hear comparisons between the experience we have with ride-sharing services and government,” Blake Johnson said. “These private services are anticipating our needs.” While the government doesn’t necessarily have to worry about “losing customers,” improving the customer experience can save agencies time and money by offering self-services to citizens that allow employees to focus on more important tasks.

In GovLoop’s recent customer experience guide, Blake Johnson highlights some of the most successful federal, state and local customer experience case studies and notes that a holistic approach to modernizing the customer experience tends to maximize improvement. “I’ve noticed that agencies are beginning to think about how to serve the customer well across the entire journey.”

Now, organizations are looking across all platforms to see how all aspects of the process affect customers instead of focusing on improving one, individualized service.

Prioritizing Customer Feedback

As the Associate Director of Customer Service and Public Engagement at USCIS, Melero prioritizes the customer experience and believes that “every government organization has service in its DNA.” In order to improve customer service at USCIS, Melero and her team focus on customer feedback.

When Melero joined USCIS, she also inherited a “static, incredibly expensive and not very nimble” call center operation. At the time, the call center was considered the best and only way to communicate with customers, but Melero knew that there were better ways to operate.

“We decided it was important to start listening to the voice of the public and to ask them what they needed from us,” Melero said. The department gathered information from customers all over the country through in-person conversations and decided that it was imperative that they analyze their people, processes and technology in order to create a better user experience.

After analyzing feedback about the accessibility of the process, the department implemented a remote calling center and a new email contacting system. Both processes proved to be more convenient for customers and allowed the agency to be more responsive.

Similarly, Reese said that consistent user feedback played a huge role in improving  USDA’s website. “We did a review of USDA.gov last year and we rolled out a new site,” Reese said. “But even though we rolled it out, it wasn’t necessarily finished. We tried to implement a lot of ways to receive constant feedback from the public.”

After installing an email system for customer response to the changes, the agency had several hundred emails within hours of rolling out the new website. The feedback led to necessary changes and modernization efforts that made the process more convenient for customers.

Breaking Down Communication Silos

When it comes to IT modernization, it can be difficult to connect people, departments and information to ensure consistency across platforms and operations. “Consistency is difficult because different parts of the organization are responsible for different but critical aspects of the experience,” Melero admitted. “Everything has to connect. The processes can’t be standalone [user] experiences.”

In terms of website content, Melero has a systems integrator to make sure that the users are accessing information that is consistent on the back-end. She insists that the value of integration is immeasurable. “With an integrator, we can be sure that we create seamless transitions on our website that are, in many instances, invisible to the applicant.”

But there is no system in place to ensure consistency in communication among people, which can make the modernization process more complicated. Nonetheless, Reese found a way to break down communication silos between departments and agencies.

“We were one of the first departments to initiate a digital analytics program,” Reese said. “I tried to move our program forward by meeting with everyone one-on-one. I talked to every single agency to discuss their needs and what we can expect from them, but we also discussed what they expect from us.” Reese said that the increased communication resulted in improvements for the end user and agencies. “It increases accountability where everyone can share and use the same best practices,” Reese said.

Gaining Leadership Buy-In

“Being able to articulate why your project is important, why you need leadership support and why the project improves services to citizens is key,” Blake Johnson insisted.

But convincing leaders to invest more money in a process that already works is no easy feat. “In addition to transparency, what’s important to leadership is effectiveness,” Melero said.

At USDA, Reese’s team looks to data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their efforts. “You have to have leadership buy-in, but we don’t want to do things arbitrarily,” Reese explained. “You need data to gauge the effectiveness of the projects, so we have a strong focus on data to measure all things we do internally and externally.”

To encourage leadership buy-in, project managers need to build a strong case that their modernization project is a worthwhile investment with a clear and achievable end-goal. But, communicating that case by generating conversation among leadership is equally important. “Always start with conversation and work off of what leadership priorities are,” Reese advised. “We don’t take action until we know what leadership’s vision is and how they want to move forward.”

Nonetheless, citizen needs and expectations are changing and leaders should recognize that service delivery will be a critical aspect of IT modernization for the next few years.

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