There was a time when government paid little attention to what we now call “customer experience” (CX). Agencies had their rules, and constituents had to navigate them to get the services they needed. The Department of Veterans Affairs was no different. But in 2015, VA set up the Veterans Experience Office to begin to address the way veterans’ needs were met. In 2018, the Office of Management and Budget made VA a lead agency partner to pilot improving CX across the federal government.
Barbara Morton, the VA’s deputy chief veterans experience officer, who joined the office in 2016, has been a leader in that change. She and her team initiated programs that reach out to veterans for input and use “journey maps” to understand how someone seeking a service travels through the system.
Morton’s vision of the future is one in which all of government is structured around providing the best constituent experience.
First and foremost, Morton said, is recognizing that users experience their interactions with an agency very differently from the way those within the organization do. When there is a new program, insiders may focus on distributing implementation to separate groups with purview over the various pieces. But increasingly, Morton also sees agencies looking across those divisions to see how the overall program will function.
“Organizationally, we’re blurring those lines to look at it from a veteran’s perspective,” she said. “What are the touchpoints where veterans will encounter this new information? Is it digital, a written product, is it in person? And how do we as an organization make sure that we’re not losing sight of the experience of those touchpoints and the interaction veterans may have whatever pathway they follow?”
What began as an effort to smooth the journey among offices and programs within VA is being extended to other federal departments that also affect veterans, such as Defense, Housing and Urban Development, and Education.
“For the first time ever, we’ve been able to erase the internal organizational lines and deliver tested solutions and prototypes so veterans don’t experience the burden of different silos,” Morton said.
Her goal is to see that approach throughout all of government. “Where I see us going is continuing to more deeply integrate across VA business lines, and frankly across government as a whole, with experience being that unifier. Maybe it’s idealistic, maybe it’s aspirational, but shouldn’t it be?” she said.
One hurdle Morton sees is that government agencies tend to operate by business unit. “That makes perfect sense, because in government we’re funded by business units, and how government is held accountable, traditionally, is through operational measures,” she said.
But those measures don’t tell the whole story. The missing component is experience measurement. She envisions making CX measurements as important as operational ones in evaluating the success of government programs.
The other challenge she cites is the perennial reality that changing federal administrations bring new personalities and emphases to agency work. With those political cycles, a new transformation or initiative can be sidelined if an incoming administration isn’t interested.
Morton credited both VA Secretaries Robert McDonald and Denis McDonough with giving her office and its programs their strong support. “But there’s always a risky time in any transition. I’m very committed to making sure that, as a relatively new capability, we continue to get that secretary-level support.”
Find your allies. Morton said that getting organizations to collaborate begins with finding people to collaborate with. “Find your coalition of the willing, whether it’s in your organization, your business unit or across government agencies. I wish I’d known back in 2016 that there were others like me. There are so many opportunities to partner together to help prove the concept.”
Accept that the work is never done. CX will always have to respond to new programs and the changing needs of its customers. “There’s no end state, because there’s always an opportunity to adapt ourselves to the changing needs of our veterans and their families, those we serve.”
This article appears in our guide, “Agency of the Future: How New Possibilities are Emerging in the Present.” To read more about how agencies are anticipating future needs, download it here.