Digital Gov

Desperately seeking better citizen service

Shutterstock image: cooperation, pieces to the puzzle.

"Changing the entire culture of the federal government" is a lofty goal, but that's what the authors of a new report say is necessary to improve customer service and alter citizens' negative perceptions.

The Partnership for Public Service report -- "Serving Citizens: Strategies for Customer-Centered Government in the Digital Age" -- found four key challenges for government customer service in the digital age: fragmented and outdated IT systems, privacy and security concerns, funding silos and restrictions on collecting customer feedback.

A first step in meeting those challenges and changing the culture, according to a panel of contributors who discussed the report Sept. 9, is to link Washington more closely to the West Coast.

"We need to expose these amazing folks in government to the amazing folks in Silicon Valley -- at the Amazons and the Googles, at the other leading edge companies -- and bring these two communities together to bring the best of the best practices to the federal government," said Lisa Schlosser, deputy associate administrator, office of E-Government and IT at OMB.

Beyond the "amazing folks" are the methods they use to do their work -- agile development, open source technology and flat structures that allow more people to contribute to the process, according to Kathy Conrad, acting associate administer at the Office of Citizen Services and Information Technology at the General Services Administration.

"When we launched the new version of Data.gov earlier this year, our whole design process and the whole redesign was online on GitHub, and we got lots and lots of feedback and suggestions from folks … in government, from folks in other governments, literally worldwide and through the private sector to help make the site better," Conrad said. "It's just a whole new way of working that even a couple of years ago wouldn't have been thought possible."

Delivering excellent service is at the core of the missions at federal agencies, said Eric Keller, program manager for research at the Partnership for Public Service.

"For digital services especially, the private sector really is driving expectations higher and higher, customers increasingly expect the kind of streamlined interaction they get from companies like Amazon and Google, and these companies often have IT budgets that really exceed those of most federal agencies-- so it really is a challenge," he said.

A big indicator of customer satisfaction stems from government website usability, the report said.

USA.gov served more than 66 million individuals in 2013 and has more than 745,000 email subscribers who receive regular updates about their interest areas, according to program performance documents. The site rivals Twitter as one of the most linked-to websites on the Internet, with approximately 9.7 million links on other websites, according to the report.

To further improve the experience with USA.gov, GSA is working on a platform—MyUSA -- that would provide citizens with a customized dashboard and account to manage and track their interactions with government in one place. GSA is starting to work with APIs as well to encourage and facilitate information sharing between agencies, the report said.

But multiple obstacles remain in the effort to improve federal customer service -- some of those are federal laws.

The Paperwork Reduction Act and the Privacy Act are cited in the report as major obstacles to engaging the public. The report recommends Congress revisit the laws, both written long before the digital age, to "make sure they provide agencies with sufficient flexibility to provide excellent digital service but still meet other objectives."

Whether its 18F working with agencies to break down barriers, or an agency working to modernize an old legacy system, Conrad said, bringing in stakeholders — including privacy advocates and policy people — early and often is crucial to understanding how a project could affect privacy or interfere with policies in place.

And cultural barriers can be just as obstinate as statutory ones.

"One thing that's important is to always make a distinction between barriers that are steeped in practice and just because they've always been done that way and those that are steeped in statute and policy," Conrad said.

The report also recommends designating a leader to monitor improvements in customer relations — out of the Fortune 100 companies, 22 percent have either a "chief customer officer" or a top-level decision maker with similar responsibilities, Keller said.

"This is about changing the entire culture of the federal government," Schlosser said. "This isn't about changing one system or about changing technology. It's really about changing the DNA, the way that government from our senior leadership down to the person on the ground thinks. We have to think differently, we have to think about the customer and not what we want to put out there."

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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