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The Role of Technologists in Customer Service

The following post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, Defining Your Role in Government Customer Service.

Technologists like systems administrators, web developers and even information officers are rarely framed as the customer service owners of governments. But according to Illinois’ former Chief Digital Officer Hardik Bhatt, that’s exactly what they are. In a recent interview with GovLoop, Bhatt explained how his IT team views customer service and how it’s used technology to enhance the state’s digital capabilities in a way that meets citizen and public servant needs. 

The Customers of Illinois IT

Bhatt outlined three customer groups that government technology professionals serve: employees of the state, citizens who use state services and small government organizations like cities, municipalities and school districts. "Once you define those three sets of customers very clearly, then the question is: What role do you play as providers of technology?” he said.

For the first two customer groups – employees and citizens – Bhatt said his department’s role is clear. They provide the tools and support to enable better service delivery, usually through the development or procurement of digital applications. Additionally, his team uses data analytics to provide more comprehensive customer views for state employees. “We provide a kind of direct assistance and direct application of technology for these first two sets of customers,” he said.

The third group, government organizations, is served differently by the state IT team. Nevertheless, Bhatt views that role as one of customer service. “For that third set of customers, our focus is how we get those municipalities and school districts the best economies of scale by using the state’s authority for joint procurement,” he said. “That way, we create an equal playing field for these organizations to get the technologies they need to achieve their missions.”

Bhatt’s team also works in conjunction with the Chief Information Security Officer’s group to increase awareness regarding things like cybersecurity and technology best practices, ensuring that other organizations appropriately buy and use the tools they need.

The Smarter State Vision

This multifaceted view of IT as a customer service enabler is embodied in Bhatt’s Smarter State initiative, which launched in 2015. “We really built a strong story, where the absence of coordinated technology and business creates lots of fiefdoms,” Bhatt said. “We were spending unnecessary money, we were unsecure and then beyond that, our customers were the ones who were really suffering because they had no single point of reference for Illinois services.”

Since 2015, Smart State has grown to comprise three separate but related goals:

  • Smart IT, which better positions IT teams to serve state interests. The plan consolidated 38 siloed IT departments with about 1,500 employees into a single Department of Innovation & Technology. That makes it easier for other state agencies to access IT services in a single location, and receive coordinated support. At the same time, the department can pull information from multiple agencies and databases to better understand customer processes, goals and needs.
  • Digital government focuses on integrating better tools into government processes and services, in order to meet the demands of citizens and state employees alike. A prime objective of this initiative is the creation of mobile technologies. Within 18 months, the department built 37 mobile apps or mobile-responsive websites. It’s also focused on moving internal workloads to the cloud so it can scale power and costs as service demands increase.
  • Smart State takes the ideas of Smart City plans – namely, applying Internet of Things ideas to make public services and infrastructure more effective and efficient – and applies them across Illinois. Part of this initiative is focused on leveraging a statewide procurement authority, so that other Illinois government bodies can purchase the same tools at the state rate.

To ensure the IT team meets its customer service objectives, it involves any relevant cohort – whether that’s an employee, citizen or another organization – in the ideation, planning, procurement and deployment of each part of this strategy.

For instance, the IT department is working with other state departments, including Commerce and Education, smaller municipality governments, as well as external partners like the Internet of Things Consortium. Bhatt also emphasized their commitment to constantly keeping individual stakeholders like community business leaders or other agency leaders involved in individual projects, to make sure their concerns and needs are included in development plans.

Each of these initiatives meets clear customer needs within and outside of Illinois state government. But more than that, Bhatt explained that they’re using the Smart State program to reframe the role of technology in government.

In those conversations with stakeholders, for instance, the value of initiatives is framed in business terms. “If you’re a plain IT shop, you generally measure your value in terms of downtime versus uptime, or the number of help desk calls that you receive or return,” Bhatt said. “In our case, we’ve always focused on the business impact, so we measure the dollars saved because of a process change, or hours of productivity generated because of a specific implementation.”

That approach keeps technology conversations focused on the customer, ensuring that stakeholder objectives are kept in mind through every stage of development. The discussion also emphasizes the role technology can play in meeting customer service goals.

“We widened our Smart State initiative beyond just the technology focus into more economic development, workforce development, infrastructure, education, regulatory issues and other aspects,” said Bhatt. “The governor gets a lot of credit for that, because he made sure that we are talking about the comprehensive digital transformation of the state. We’re not just talking about IT projects. Smart State is a comprehensive way of transforming government.”

Now, Bhatt is focused on expanding his IT team’s efforts to a fourth customer set: other states. They’re currently working with the National Governors Association to expand and replicate the Smart State model for other state governments to follow.

At the same time, the Department of Innovation & Technology is keeping an eye on emerging technologies that can be incorporated into its current programs. But again, Bhatt emphasized the customer as the center of their efforts. “It’s all about thinking of our efforts as comprehensive customer service transformation. This isn’t just IT transformation,” he said.

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