As any American (or newcomer or visitor to the United States) can attest, contacting the U.S. government can be a daunting, almost intimidating, and too often a frustrating experience.
Inadequate online self-help, limited interaction channels, multiple phone numbers and web sites, excessive form filling and paperwork, having to contact multiple agencies, and finding the right people to talk to (and long hold times) have unfortunately become the public’s customer experience (CX).
And according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Federal Government Report 2020 the trend has generally been downward (see Chart 1).
Chart 1: CITIZEN SATISFACTION WITH FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SERVICES
Such is the scale of the paperwork alone that it has been in excess of 9 billion hours in recent years, reports the White House: which it admits is far too high.
Not surprisingly, in today’s hyperpartisan era, there is variation in satisfaction between the supporters of the different political parties (see Chart 4).
Chart 4: CITIZEN SATISFACTION BY POLITICAL AFFILIATION
The U.S. government CX issues have become amplified with the COVID-19 pandemic. The necessary closure of federal government offices as a result has meant that many matters that would have been handled in-person now have to be conducted by phone: adding to those already being answered by their contact center agents.
On top of that, changes to help Americans cope with the financial impacts of the pandemic, like stimulus payments, generated calls to the contact centers.
Caught in between are the dedicated and hardworking contact center agents who do their best to help while putting on their smiles when engaging with customers. The public appears to have acknowledged that fact. The ACSI report noted (see Chart 2) that “the professionalism and courtesy of customer service provided by federal services is…now the highest score among the drivers of citizen satisfaction.”
Chart 2: FEDERAL GOVERNMENT—Citizen Satisfaction Drivers
These agents and their families, like those in the private sector, have been facing dangers from the COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to work-from-home (WFH) prompted by it. Fortunately, the federal government has had a longstanding WFH/telework policy and the number of government employees who WFH has climbed. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reported to Congress in December 2021 that 45% of all federal employees teleworked and 90% of those eligible to telework did so in fiscal year (FY) 2020, ending September 30, 2020: a 34% increase in both groups.
The President’s Executive Order
President Joe Biden has decided to act on these longstanding and also pandemic-driven issues. He signed an executive order (EO), “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government” on December 13, 2021, that directs the federal government to bolster its CX.
“When a disaster survivor, single parent, immigrant, small business owner, or veteran waits months for the Government to process benefits to which they are entitled, that lost time is a significant cost not only for that individual, but in the aggregate, for our Nation as a whole,” said President Biden in a statement issuing the EO.
“This lost time operates as a kind of tax—a ‘time tax’—and it imposes a serious burden on our people as they interact with the Government. Improving Government services should also make our Government more efficient and effective overall.”
President’s Biden’s EO, the latest such action by the White House since 1993 aimed at addressing CX issues (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative), commits the U.S. government to making 36 improvements across 17 federal agencies.
It also creates a cross-agency service delivery process that it said, “aligns to the moments that matter most in people’s lives—like turning 65, having a child, or applying for a small business loan.”
The Biden administration said that it will identify and define critical services, assess performance and report it publicly, and incorporate customer feedback during every interaction.
The EO designated 35 High-Impact Service Providers (HISPs) in key federal agencies based on the volume and types of benefits, services, and programs they supply (see Chart 5).
Chart 5: DESIGNATED HIGH IMPACT SERVICE PROVIDERS
They will be the focus of improving the CX including program modernization, reducing administrative burdens, and piloting new online technologies and tools in order to provide “a simple, seamless, and secure customer experience.”
Among these agencies, not surprisingly, is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which falls under the Treasury Department. The ACSI report ranked the Treasury Department last in key agencies and departments in citizen satisfaction (see Chart 3).
Chart 3: ACSI: FEDERAL DEPARTMENTS 2020
The National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) reported that 86% of taxpayers want a toll-free number to access; the same percentage agreed that the IRS should be improving its phone-based customer service. Also, 81% want the ability to email questions to the agency and 70% want mobile-enabled IRS applications for tax information and assistance.
The EO further mandated that federal government agencies work with Congress, the private sector, non-profit organizations, state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, and other partners to design CXs that reduce administrative burdens and simplify public-facing and internal processes and make them more efficient. But also to “empower the Federal workforce to solve problems.”
“As the United States faces critical challenges, including recovering from a global pandemic, promoting prosperity and economic growth, advancing equity, and tackling the climate crisis, the needs of the people of the United States, informed by, in particular, an understanding of how they experience Government, should drive priorities for service delivery improvements,” said President Biden.
What Our Experts Say
To get a handle on this far-reaching EO, Contact Center Pipeline reached out to several leading industry experts.
Founder and Chief Analyst
This EO by President Biden is hugely significant to we as consumers of government services and to our industry.
I’ll start with benefits to the federal government. There is no question that public satisfaction with government service delivery lags far behind private industry.
“There is no question that public satisfaction with government service delivery lags far behind private industry.”
The ACSI measures 10 economic sectors, which together represent a broad swath of the U.S. economy, reports that government and public administration scored a satisfaction index that was last by a large margin of the sectors surveyed (ed. note: the federal government ranked higher than local government.) Implementation of all or many of the specific action items listed in the EO will raise customer satisfaction while at the same time cutting the “time taxes” that President Biden referred to in his statement. An important side benefit will be improved employee morale and job satisfaction.
Benefits to our industry will be profound. When the leader of the free world elevates improving the CX to a federal government priority, everyone pays attention.
Over the decades since the modern contact center was established in the late 1970s our industry has created and refined management practices and technologies that improve customer interaction processes.
At their core, government entities are giant service organizations. Their activities are process driven. Anyone who has waited hours to execute a simple transaction at the local DMV or perhaps applied for a passport has seen firsthand the inefficiency of government.
We can help agencies streamline their processes with both modern technology and management skills. Perhaps the most important contribution our industry can make is through training, which includes helping to foster the customer-centric culture within government agencies.
As an analyst, I want to share with you a few numbers, sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As of May 2020, there were 5,575,070 individuals employed with the title of Customer Service Representative. Of that very large number, 51% were employed by federal, state, or local governments. Further, here is a statement from the technology initiatives arm of the General Services Administration: “The federal government spends over $20 billion a year on contact centers, primarily on outdated technology and processes.”
Contact center vendors and service providers, are you paying attention?
Founder and Principal
The Biden administration’s “Executive Order on Transforming the Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government,” reminds us that there is a crisis of sorts when it comes to the issue of trust, not only in government, but throughout society in general.
“There is a crisis of sorts when it comes to the issue of trust.”
Doubtless, part of the reason for this state of affairs is how quickly things seem to be changing throughout society, with exponential technological change being a primary culprit. In the context of the CX I was immediately reminded of the January 11, 2022, webinar entitled “Close the Trust Gap,” during which Twilio and Deloitte Digital revealed their findings on quantifying the value of trust during the economy’s ongoing shift to digital.
The findings emerged from research conducted during the summer of 2021, when Twilio and Deloitte Digital surveyed 1,000 consumers and 500 leaders of large, business-to-consumer enterprises in the United States with the aim of identifying and quantifying the business value of trust.
What did they discover?
The key takeaway from the webinar is that the ease of doing business with a brand enhances trust (the components of “ease” include quick issue resolution, easy access to live customer support, no bouncing customers from person to person when addressing an issue, and simplicity in finding needed information).
This is an enormously important insight, because the data also suggest that a deep sense of trust makes it significantly more likely that customers will stay loyal to a particular brand.
In the context of government, what insight could be more timely than that?
The White House’s announcement was clear: “By demonstrating that its processes are effective and efficient, in addition to being fair, protective of privacy interests, and transparent, the Federal Government can build public trust.”
It’s a worthy goal. Now all they have to do is execute.
Kathleen M. Peterson
Chief Vision Officer
PowerHouse Consulting, Inc.
When I first read President Biden’s EO on the CX, I thought that a reasonable subtitle could be “Calling All Consultants!”
The order aims to address a massive challenge faced by the federal government: easy, speedy, and effective access to services and benefits.
But as noted in the EO, this is not the first time such an initiative has been undertaken. The Clinton administration launched the National Performance Review (NPR) initiative, which lasted from 1993 to 2000 (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative).
“Those involved in executing…will be well- served to study the processes
the NPR used.” ~KATHLEEN M. PETERSON
The NPR came at a time of massive consumer change. Call centers grew like weeds due to improvements in telecommunications technology. The digital world was about to blow up with the emergence of the internet and with it the World Wide Web. The world was poised for enormous change and government had to get on board for the sake of effectiveness and efficiency.
The world we occupy currently is poised for many more changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for government services to be more accessible and responsive to those in need.
The impact of social media, remote work, and many more consumer access channels than ever demand that service providers streamline processes, tools, and procedures to assure the transformation of the “Citizen Experience” to a Customer Experience.
This is based on many of the approaches taken by today’s contact centers. This order should resonate mightily with contact center leaders since many are facing very similar situations.
President Biden’s EO has many similarities to the NPR in its purpose statement to “design and deliver services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.” The specific language may be different, but the similarities are striking. These objectives also align to many contact center operational struggles; the effort looks to drive the design of services based on consumer need.
The stated purpose looks to eliminate organizational and operational barriers, support cross-functional (agency) relationships, and improve technology, digital access, and processes by reducing or eliminating paper (via the Paperwork Reduction Act) and applying the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to provide clearly written policies, procedures, etc.
My personal favorite of the entire document is the identification and acknowledgement that difficulty in accessing services creates, as President Biden says, a “time tax” on the consumer.
The time tax is imposed when customers apply for or secure access to government services. Lengthy delays and confusion may prevent access to benefits for months at a time. This does not build trust.
President Biden’s EO aims to relieve the time tax when accessing services from the government. It is not unlike what contact centers do daily when managing our own “time tax,” namely putting customers on HOLD.
Those involved in executing this ambitious order will be well-served to study the processes the NPR used during its stint to communicate objectives, engage agency personnel, and secure the support of Congress when necessary.
This EO is needed. The public is faced with an enormous amount of bureaucracy and paperwork.
I have one mantra for my clients —“Think Like a Customer” when developing marketing campaigns, website content and tabs, telephone menus, products, and services.
In my opinion, the federal government does not adhere to this. No matter what department or agency you reach out to, there is always a long delay to find an answer to a question.
I spoke with several family members for their opinions:
- “When I call, there are too many press options. I call back two, three times to find the right option to press and then wait for a human to answer.”
- “Sometimes I just press any number to hopefully get a human and ask if they can transfer me. Lately they say no and tell me to call back and press “x” on the menu.”
- “Isn’t this a waste of my tax dollars?”
My advice during the implementation of this EO, all department/agency executives should call the “contact us” telephone numbers listed in their marketing materials and website. Bet they will be surprised!
But the U.S. government—the White House and Congress—will have to budget the resources from our tax dollars. Because if you want to provide outstanding CX, you need to spend money on contact center technology and staff.
Government consumerization of CX is here to stay. The customer expects the same technology services regardless of industry: artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, chat, email, video, front/back-office integration, just to name a few.
For staffing keep in mind your payroll rostered staff needs to include percentages for “lost” time, such as vacation, holidays, sick days, personal days, continuous training, staff meetings, and breaks.
This factor can be as high as 25%. The lost hours percentage needs to be factored back into the total number of staff required to meet performance metrics such as Service Level, Average Speed of Answer, and Abandoned Call Tolerance.
“My questions are these: how were these directives determined? And how were they validated as must-haves?”
The crux of this EO is in the execution. My questions are these: how were these directives determined? And how were they validated as must-haves?
Here also are “Back to Basics” questions that should be addressed:
- Why were the outcomes of the 1993 EO not sustainable (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative)?
- What does the American public expect from this EO?
The President’s EO also stated that “Within 90 days of this EO and on a regular basis thereafter, governance staff is to select a limited number of customer life experiences to prioritize for Government-wide action to improve customer experience.” But why only a limited number?
The order also said that “Within 180 days of this EO and every 6 months thereafter, a status of actions is required by each agency.” But based on the EO timeline this project could take three to five years, depending on the agency.
I have learned a long time ago projects of this magnitude need to be “bucketized” so that completions can be realized quickly and in a timely manner. If the light at the end of the tunnel is always the oncoming train, this EO will fail.