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Transforming Customer Experience at U.S. Census Bureau

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

Interview with Michele Bartram, Customer Experience Officer at U.S. Census Bureau

Citizens increasingly rely on a variety of digital channels in their everyday lives. People want to engage with their government digitally, but research shows that most are dissatisfied with the platforms and services currently available. Especially when compared to the digital experiences offered by the private sector, government agencies’ tools are lagging behind.

Michele Bartram, Customer Experience Officer for the U.S. Census Bureau, understands the importance of prioritizing customer needs in shaping technological innovation. To change negative perceptions of federal digital services and adapt to a rapidly changing digital landscape, the agency has focused on integrating and simplifying what had previously been a fragmented data and content experience; providing consistent access and functionality across devices; and developing smart solutions grounded in analytics and key metrics.

Customer experience should be at the heart of digital service design. This requires knowing your customers — determining what their needs are and understanding how they encounter and experience federal digital services.

“The customer journey includes both digital and physical touchpoints,” Bartram explained. “But with so many different silos and groups, it’s hard to get people speaking the same language.” For this reason, it is crucial to ensure that there is an ingrained commitment to customer service at every level of your agency. There should be a clear framework and common language for agency employees, because they are the ones responsible for engaging customers and delivering the outward-facing services.

Bartram outlined five questions of “customer journey thinking”:

  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the customer’s real goal?
  • What did the customer do right before coming to your website or digital platform?
  • What will the customer do right after engaging with your digital tools?
  • What will make the customer happy?

The Census Bureau redesigned its website, Census.gov, and enhanced its digital platform to provide a more personalized and relevant experience for citizen users. After receiving feedback that the data and information on the website were difficult to navigate, the Census Bureau tailored its services to better meet customers’ needs and varying levels of experience.

For the average site visitor, many of the terms and tools on the Census Bureau website weren’t necessarily intuitive. The agency subsequently prioritized simplifying interfaces and “getting the words right” — using clear, novice-friendly menu topics and modifying SEO search algorithms to better account for common synonyms. The Bureau also made data easier to find, read and understand by shifting to a centralized data dissemination platform, EDDE, and moving away from unwieldy, difficult-to-read data tables and system diagrams.

Bartram also provided a number of other examples and suggestions for agencies trying to simplify their services. She recommended augmenting text with images and utilizing video. These tools can also serve a dual function of helping users better understand the digital platform — online tutorials, for example, “can help get novices to the level of experts.” After implementing these changes, Census reported higher levels of customer engagement with the agency’s digital services and increasingly positive user satisfaction scores.

A key component of improving citizen services and knowing where to begin involves gathering data. Bartram recommended mining customer feedback — through online surveys or other evaluation forms — and drawing out important takeaways from the responses. However, she cautioned against spending resources and time to collect meaningless data.

“Gather the data that matters,” Bartram said. “The government has plenty of performance metrics, but not everything is useful or applicable.” One-size-fits-all metrics (e.g. total site views) or vanity metrics (e.g. number of social media followers), for example, are so broad or arbitrary as to not be particularly useful. Instead, agencies should utilize targeted forensic analytics to better ascertain the efficacy and usability of their digital services for their audience.

Digital transformation shouldn’t be limited to internal changes alone. According to Bartram, agencies should aim to think out of the box, engage traditional and non-traditional channels and analyze how their services align with those of other organizations. For example, she noted that customers looking for demographic data might not necessarily visit the Census Bureau website to find this information. To make sure citizens can still access Census information, the agency developed channels to make its information available on sites like WikiData and Wikipedia, as well as through various online widgets and apps.

The Census Bureau also noticed that a number of users were being directed to their site from the Department of State, in order to use their “age search” service. This service provides age verification for social security and other retirement benefits, passport applications, or other situations where a birth certificate would be required but is not available. To meet this recognized need, Census created fact sheets and a topical page with information on this particular service.

To improve site traffic and continue to expand the number of digital users, agencies also need to think creatively and aim to provide timely content. During Hurricane Harvey, for example, the Census Bureau provided data and helped produce emergency management maps that could be used by first responders and rescue teams. “People respond to storytelling,” she said.

Government agencies must focus on providing a better and more consistent digital experience. Instead of putting technology first, the federal government should ensure that customer experience and customer service are guiding their program design.

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