When you think about dealing with a government agency to access benefits, request documents, or conduct any one of a number of necessary tasks, does it bring to mind a pleasant customer experience, or one that is fraught with challenges? While frustrating experiences might be the name of the game, can agencies improve citizen experience when it comes to accessing essential services?
To answer these questions and see how federal agencies are responding to citizens who are demanding the type of customer experience they enjoy with consumer brands and private sector businesses, we caught up with Jeff Kramer, Senior Director of Government Solutions for Reed Tech. Kramer said that citizens “want more access and responsiveness and customer friendliness because they’re used to commercial customer service.” In contrast, he pointed out most interactions with the government are by telephone. But things are poised for change.
Government Technology Insider (GTI): What are the barriers to a good customer experience with government agencies? Is it technology, or do the challenges start elsewhere?
Jeff Kramer, Reed Tech (JK): Technology is obviously one of the areas, but I think it’s a combination of things, starting with high expectations. You’re used to ordering something on Amazon and having it delivered, sometimes within the same day. No matter what that service is, whether you’re buying something online or just getting an answer, it’s that type of “right now” customer service that just doesn’t translate over to the government very well.
Everybody knows there’s aging IT and infrastructure and that 80 to 90 percent of operating budgets are geared towards maintaining these legacy systems. This doesn’t leave a lot of budget to invest in new ways to deliver citizen services. So there’s a perpetual lag in technology, policies, regulations, and procedures.
In practice what this means is that there’s a big gap between what citizens are used to in terms of accessing services. When interacting with stores or banks citizens are used to being able to access services on their phones via mobile-friendly apps. But you can’t do that when it comes to dealing with government agencies. At best, you can go online from a desktop or laptop computer, but typically you still need to call the agency and hope that you can get through the phone tree to talk to a person who will be able to help you. You’ve got to go online if, in fact, they’ve got something online. Most of the time, you’re still just talking to people.
You get customer service today with online applications. There’s customer service bots where you’re trying to order something and somebody pops up and says, “Hey, would you like to chat? How can I help you? What can I do for you? Do you need any help? Here’s the number to call. I’m right here.” You basically have a little chatbot sitting on your shoulder, helping you through an entire process. The government is just not there.
The gap is so huge. We’re just trying to survive and keep up with the services that they’re already offering, let alone provide those in a 21st century technology way. So it’s a bunch of different problems all grouped together.
GTI: You mentioned that citizen-users have expectations. What about from the other side of things? Should the service providers within the government agencies have expectations that they can provide better service in the way people want.
JK: I don’t think there’s a lack of wanting to provide better customer service for citizen-facing things. It’s just that the barriers are so high. It’s almost like modernization, right? Where do you start with such a tremendous problem? And generally, the answer is, just slice off just one little piece of something and call that done and make that a success story. I think a lot of these folks are trying to carve out too much, and when it comes to modernization and even providing these enhanced citizen services, they get lost in the wash because they just try to do too much.
So if you’re trying to provide a very simple online service to somebody, sure, you can put an application together that can provide the service. But, what’s the underlying infrastructure behind that? “Well, it needs to be in the cloud.” “We don’t have cloud services.” “Okay, so when are we getting them?” “Well, we’re not getting them for three or four years.”
So, there’s that, plus the policy. “Well, what about the security? Is it compliant, because it’s going to be on the cloud?” “Well, we don’t have that either.” There are myriad problems and you start backing yourself into a corner and then it’s probably just easier to not offer the service at all.
GTI: The American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council – ACT-IAC – is a non-profit industry group that’s focused on helping to improve government through technology. They’ve recently published their Customer Experience Playbook. You’ve been involved with this group for a long time. Tell us about the playbook and the recommendations.
JK: ACT-IAC has a number of Communities of Interest (COIs). One of those is a Customer Experience or Citizen-facing Experience COI, and they deal with things where the government is supposed to be providing improved citizen services. So, it’s a playbook, it’s a framework, it’s kind of a guide to improve services to citizens. Basically, it’s how to establish an office with better customer experience or even some level of a program on the front end, which will allow you to slowly transform your services, which folks aren’t necessarily used to.
And part of it is for the government just to understand who their customers are — who is it that they’re dealing with on a daily basis. Is it a veteran, is it a college student, is it a taxpayer, employees of other agencies, senior citizens that have hearing issues or folks that are colorblind or can’t deal with things online? It provides a recommendation on how to improve the services overall and provide some things that folks in the government haven’t thought about in terms of better ways to provide these services.
GTI: How does it tie to the Connected Government Act of 2018, which requires all the agency websites to be mobile friendly?
JK: There used to be things like 508 compliance, where an application has to use the right colors, it has to use the right fonts; it’s kind of an extension of that. It’s a little bit more advanced, given the technology that websites use. In a previous life I was a software developer. Any software that the government provided had to be 508 compliant. There was a whole process to get approved and confirmed before it could go online and be live.
So, given that technologies that are around today, given potential browser types and internet speeds and those types of things, it’s just more heavy-handed guidance, in relation to the old 508 compliance.
Come back tomorrow to read part 2 of Jeff’s conversation on how agencies can improve citizen experience. Subscribe and get it directly in your inbox.