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Lessons from the private sector: How federal government customer experience is evolving
by Steve Foley

Great news! Federal agencies don’t have to reinvent the wheel to provide great customer experience. As highlighted in my last blog, the private sector has done a lot of the hard work already. In many areas of modern customer experience, the trial-and-error has been done by businesses and now federal services can simply copy the best practice and reap the rewards. Here, I’ll look at how federal customer experience is evolving.

A renewed focus on data and design

Clunky websites overhanging from a bygone era of the internet have haunted federal services for long enough. Increasingly, federal services are taking inspiration from beautiful web design and seeing the benefit. Deloitte points to the success of the US Department of Veteran Affairs’ recent website redesign, which resulted in a 50% jump in online healthcare applications by veterans over the previous year[1]. While this had a benefit on customer experience, applications submitted online and undoubtedly more cost-effective than painstakingly taking place over the phone.

Another example from Deloitte is when the Federal Acquisition Service at the US General Services Administration used feedback from a survey to improve its services. The agency used fleet category management techniques to bring down the procurement time by 50%, and reduce costs by 20%[2].

Embracing cloud services

More recently, Covid-19 has strong-armed federal agencies to adopt IT services provided by corporations. While the pandemic put pressures on agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal partners had to step up to meet demand. “Our main concern at the time was that we couldn’t let service levels stall because demand for citizen services was so high,” Tom Romeo, President and General Manager for Maximus Federal, told Nextgov.

Overall, Maximus Federal turned to cloud computing to further advance its remote employees’ capabilities, allowing 9,000 remote call center staff to address calls in Amazon Web Services’ secure cloud computing environment[3]. Expect to see these partnerships continue.

Overcoming differences in services

One particular challenge that federal services face that private businesses don’t is the ability to treat people differently. A focus on fairness, born out of a fear of being accused of discrimination, has resulted in a straight-bat one-size-fits-all service that ignores the needs of individuals in pursuit of equality. Though well-meaning, this has resulted in a situation where individual preferences have been put second.

But this attitude is similarly evolving. In 2017, a US airport achieved a number-one ranking for customer satisfaction among its peers by identifying large segments of customers, creating personas for each and then making staff travel through the airport from their perspectives[4]. The personas included customers, such as elderly couples, international visitors, business travelers and families with children and highlighted individual challenges, such as the need for staff that could speak multiple languages for those not fluent in English. By identifying where customers need to be treated differently but still with the same level of dignity, services can improve for all. 

This increased understanding of the overall customer journey is copied straight from the boardrooms of private businesses but is no less relevant to federal agencies.

So, what’s next?

Federal agencies are taking their first meaningful steps into providing great customer services, but there is still plenty of work to do. Now that agencies are listening and speaking to their customers more flexibly, they now need to keep that conversation going. They need to build on the insights and data that they are now collecting every day in a way that allows their customer services to be better each day than the last. However, in a country of nearly 330 million people, the right technology needs to be deployed to listen to them all. But it’s an exciting opportunity because it means that government can truly build on the desires and needs of the people and be better every day.







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