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Creating federal digital services that actually work

Shutterstock image: government access keyboard.

Digital engagement is a top priority for the federal government. The Obama administration tacked $105 million onto the fiscal 2017 budget to expand digital services and more recently established a new Core Federal Services Council to focus on improving performance in key citizen-facing programs.

All that comes on the heels of a Forrester Research report that clearly shows agencies still grapple with delivering quality customer service. The report says agencies should "seek real-time customer feedback" to make improvements.

It is true: Agencies need a deep understanding of user needs and should shape service around those needs. But more important, agencies need their services to work -- and work well.

Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf said it best: "Buggy software is scarier than a robot takeover."

Even the most advanced technology, designed with the end-user experience in mind, will be cast aside if it's slow or prone to glitches. That's because a mistake-free experience is the most fundamental element to a good customer experience. To illustrate the point, think about fine dining.

Would it be a good experience if a restaurant decided to kick you out halfway through your meal? What if your server took 30 minutes to greet you at your table and then got your order completely wrong? You're probably not going to be a happy customer. Ambiance and celebrity chefs don't matter without the fundamentals.

The same rules apply to the digital experience. For example, if I'm shopping on Amazon, I don't really care what the user interface looks like as long as I can accomplish what I'm there to do: buy something.

Or take small-business vendors for the Department of Veterans Affairs. They must be able to access the government's online portal so they can get paid for their work and pay their employees. That matters more to them than great customer journey mapping or continuity of experience on different devices.

Federal agency IT architectures are becoming more complex than ever, which makes it harder to deliver on what's fundamental to customer experience: Can I do what I came here to do?

When your industry is third from last in customer satisfaction, as the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked government last year, then it's time to focus on the fundamentals.

Here is what every agency must understand: The performance of government applications and the networks that deliver them are vital to the user experience. Changes to underlying technologies will empower agencies to know how people interact with their applications and solve trouble areas before they negatively affect the experience.

What you don't know can hurt you

Before optimizing for customer experience, agencies must thoroughly understand their infrastructure and how applications are performing. That knowledge starts with enhancing awareness by looking for where things work and where they don't work.

Comprehensive performance visibility is an essential part of running IT operations, but it isn't happening. In a survey conducted by Market Connections, 51 percent of federal IT decision-makers said it takes a day or more to detect and fix application performance issues.

An integrated approach to monitoring and troubleshooting application and network performance is one way to gain understanding. It functions like the warning lights and diagnostic sensors in a car. Just as your car will warn you if your tires need air or your engine needs oil, engineers and developers use network monitoring to quickly and precisely discover an issue then fix it.

Similar to a car's instrument panel, performance dashboards provide vital insight into how network resources handle apps. There are tools that automate and streamline the collection of key metrics into one dashboard, empowering federal IT leaders to highlight concerns. They can then assign technical teams to forensically examine the root causes of performance limitations, errors and slowdowns.

What gets measured gets improved

After gaining visibility, the next step is to create usability standards and define key performance indicators. Good standards incorporate capacity, latency and errors. A single integration point that brings network and application performance together will help create a team-oriented culture, which is understood in psychology circles as possessing generative characteristics.

The quickest route to mission success begins with fixing bottlenecks. Those constraints have the biggest impact on customer experience. For instance, if the VA has a backlog of casework, then officials must address that first for the system to work faster and better serve the public.

The fix can often be as simple as using solutions that accelerate performance to combat restrained capacity or latency. For example, TechValidate surveyed customers and found that network acceleration increased productivity by nearly 300 percent on average.

Application downtime is another example of a constraint that must be overcome. An IDC report on the benefits of an application performance management solution found that the amount of customer time lost due to application downtime was reduced by 67 percent. To add some perspective to that, the cost of application downtime for an agency can range as high as $500,000 to $1 million per hour.

Don't let the future surprise you

Once an agency has achieved clear visibility into application performance and neutralized key constraints, it's time to predict and control for future limitations. Agencies need mechanisms that enable them to easily anticipate performance constraints and make investments to avoid them.

Today's modeling solutions help answer crucial "what if" scenarios that arise with digital service apps, allowing IT leaders to decrease risk and quantify the end-user experience before making significant investments. Those tools work in a way similar to how GPS estimates drive time and avoids traffic when a destination is set.

Federal agencies are facing mission-critical performance management challenges when it comes to customer service. But there are solutions. By optimizing applications and networks, agency IT leaders can ensure that the appropriate resources are always ready for federal workers and end users when they need them.

About the Author

Davis Johnson is vice president of the U.S. public sector at Riverbed Technology.

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