While many people will think of things like military campaigns, or the deployment of the Mars Rover when talking about an agency’s mission, for a number of agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration, a critical part of the mission involves delivering services to citizens.
However, as even a brief survey of citizens demonstrates a citizen’s customer experience is not what it should be when interacting with federal agencies. In fact, according to an article in NextGov, “…federal agencies finished tied for last in average customer service scores alongside internet service providers.” This was exacerbated by some federal programs and agencies finishing at or near the bottom of the list.
Why do federal agencies get such low ratings? And, more importantly what can be done to address this issue?
In an interview with CSRA’s Sam Capone, Service Area Director of Intelligent Business Process Services, the Thinking Next editors explored the reasons why the government’s reputation for CX is so bad and what role technology can play in ameliorating citizen experience when interacting with federal agencies.
Here is what Sam had to say:
Ryan Schradin (RS): Why is customer experience a problem across the federal government?
Sam Capone: The federal government isn’t the commercial sector. The interactions that most commercial companies have with their customers are often limited in their scope and purpose.
But for the federal government, the scope and purpose of its customer interactions are much larger and much more impactful. Many times, the interactions that citizens are having with their federal government agencies are life-altering.
The customer lifecycle is also much longer. You may be a customer of a company for years, but you’re most likely a citizen of a country for a lifetime.
When you consider how much longer citizens interact with their government, how much more essential and important the services they’re receiving from their government are, and how life-altering government interactions can be, it’s easy to see why it’s important that the government do better with CX.
RS: What recent trends – including staffing and HR issues – may be impacting CX in agencies?
Capone: People have a tendency to compare the CX and customer interactions they receive in the commercial sector with what they receive from the federal government. But these organizations are very different.
Budgets are tight. Hiring freezes and personnel vacancies have agencies struggling to do more with fewer resources. In this environment, budget dollars and agency resources are going to flow to more mission-critical needs. It’s hard to prioritize CX in this environment.
RS: Do you think CX is a priority for the federal government? If not, should it be? Why or why not?
Capone: Yes, absolutely. Improving CX is a clear priority for the federal government and government agencies. And I truly believe that they’re working to make changes to help improve their CX and move up CX indexes and rankings like the one that Forrester released.
But the federal government faces some challenges that commercial companies don’t face, and that we’ve discussed. For them to make real change, they have to be more innovative, and more resourceful.
RS: What role can private industry play in improving CX in the federal government?
Capone: It’s up to the private sector to help the federal government identify, test, and implement the next generation, innovative technologies that will help them overcome the challenges they face to enable better CX for their constituents.
Many of these technologies are already in use and being utilized across private companies. But the federal government wants to know that they’ll work for their constituents – and in the extremely stressful and important environments in which constituents will interact with federal agencies – before embracing them.
For example, FEMA will want to know that these technologies are acceptable for their constituents and can handle requisite volume before relying on them to help handle calls for service in the wake of a hurricane – such as the two recent hurricanes that struck Houston and Florida.
This may involve companies working in partnership with government agencies to implement these technologies on a trial, pilot basis to see if they can provide the service and quality CX necessary to keep constituents happy before rolling them out wider. This can help to overcome organizational inertia and concerns about risk.
RS: What role can advanced and innovative new technologies play in improving CX in the federal government? Are these new technologies available and on the market today?
Capone: In the customer service realm, I think natural language processing could be extremely effective for the federal government.
The ultimate goal to help constituents find the information they need or request services in a timely and efficient manner. We can accomplish this by directing simple requests to automated chat bots – online “virtual assistants” that walk constituents through an agency’s website and help them to find the information or forms that they need to request services.
With these tools in place, helping to handle easier citizen requests, the call centers and actual agency staff can spend their time servicing more complicated requests.
Without tools like natural language processing and automation, constituents wind up in a situation where they’re directed to an agency’s website to get information or fill out a form, but they don’t receive any guidance when they’re there. This results in frustration and ultimately leads them to calling agency staff for help anyway.
These solutions are available today and widely in use across the private sector.
RS: Do you anticipate the government investing in these technologies in the near future? Why or why not?
Capone: As we discussed, agencies are somewhat reticent to embrace these technologies. They’re concerned about the response they’ll get from constituents. They’re concerned that some of their constituents won’t want to interact with their government in these ways. And they’re concerned about the effectiveness of these solutions in situations such as disaster response, where the stakes are high.
That being said, I do anticipate that agencies will turn to these solutions in the near future. They’re the most effective way for them to improve their customer experience with the budget and resource restrictions that they’re facing.
In fact, some agencies have already begun to embrace these technologies with great success. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently unveiled an online virtual assistant named Emma that does much of what we’ve discussed. Today, Emma has processed more than 10 million requests.
RS: Are there other benefits that these technologies will deliver, besides improved CX, that help contribute to their ROI?
Capone: The largest benefit is obviously the increase in customer satisfaction and better customer experience, but there are other benefits. The first is the benefit to employee retention. These solutions tend to create less burdened and happier workforces, which can go a long way to improving retention and keeping essential staff employed at federal agencies.
Then there’s the benefit to the mission and productivity. These solutions can help drastically reduce the time needed to resolve a constituent issue, helping a resource-strapped federal agency accomplish more with limited employee resources. They can also effectively take tier one service off of the hands of federal employees, giving them more time to focus on larger issues and other mission-critical tasks.
The end result – a more effective and efficient federal workforce that’s focused less on handling simple constituent issues and more on working towards accomplishing the agency’s mission.
This interview first appeared on CSRA’s Thinking Next blog. Stay tuned for more coverage this month of emerging technologies and solutions that will help agencies deliver on their citizen service mission.