How agencies plan to improve customer service

Federal agencies are increasingly looking to the private sector for tips on how to improve customer experience.

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Civilian-facing agencies are taking cues from the private sector and successful public sector programs as they look agile methods of deliver user-centric services and breaking down cultural resistance.

The United States Digital Service team's product manager Natalie Kates, Speaking at Forrester Research's CXDC event on Sept. 12,  said that delivering user-centric services starts with a learn-through-doing environment in which all participants are able to contribute and collect feedback from costumers.

At the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the motivation of avoiding another HealthCare.gov still remains strong, and has led to expanded use of agile methodology in which developers show  progress through bi-weekly progress reports, said the agency's director of  data and analytics strategy group Jean-Adrien Abrams.

"We're used to having contracts… going over a multi-year period," Abrams said. "We're trying to change that… to breaking down bodies of work into smaller segments for delivery, which increases the pressure" on contractors.

Abrams said that CMS is trying to take the agile methodology to heart, even through its organization of workspaces.

"We've eliminated offices" in favor of a "shared space" to encourage a collaborative, horizontal environment in which anyone can speak up with an idea, Abrams said.

"It has been magnetic in terms of people really wanting to interact," he continued. "This is really hard, but people really like the fact that they feel valued."

Part of what that culture change looks like is bringing in expertise. For example, Kates offered an example of bringing in a designer to translate thick policy documents into a visual of what digital policy might look like in action.

"All the sudden they have a better image of what policy might look like than reading a 1,000-page document," she said.

To promote government initiatives that are employing digital services, the Office of Management and Budget's Customer Service Council seeks "to identify some of the best practices in government and to benchmark the private sector," said Lisa Danzig, OMB's Associate Director for Personnel and Performance.

She said one of the challenges is that while many organizations are collecting information about the customer experience, they're not analyzing and integrating the feedback to refine their services. Another challenge is that many agencies do not fully understand their customers' priorities.

The IRS Deputy National Taxpayer Advocate Rena Girinakis said her agency "has a tendency to paint with a broad brush," but has begun holding public forums to solicit input directly from its costumers to find out what their needs look like.

Based on consumer feedback indicating that IRS notices are difficult to understand, "what we've done is actually sat down with individuals and… try to put basic language in these so customers will really understand them," she said. "We started really doing a lot of infographics and bringing it down to the level of the individuals who are suffering."

While projects like these are good starts, Danzig cautioned that agencies "have a long way to go" to catch up to the private sector, but wants to see them continue to prioritize their customer service programs.

"If you have good stories [about customer service practices] that you want to tell, help us tell them, because we want to get some out there" to serve as examples for agencies, she said.

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