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Citizens expect government to provide the same quality of customer experience as they receive from the best consumer businesses. The only difference: Unlike the commercial world, in many cases, they don’t have another option to turn to.
“We are influenced by the experiences we have every day,” said Michele Bartram, chief customer service officer at the U.S. Census Bureau at a recent discussion on government service. “So, we think, Google: Go one place, get the answer really quick, in and out. Security: Influenced by online banking, and the convenience of that – I can scan a check at my house and make a deposit. Amazon: I can find everything in one place and have it delivered to my home.”
So when citizens turn to government Web sites or agencies for help, the bar is already set – high. Government employees live in that same world, so they too know what those consumer experiences are like. But translating a consumer customer experience to a government context isn’t easy.
Technology, security, the complexity of government programs, legal language and, of course, established culture can all get in the way.
Take language, for instance. Government has a way of looking in at itself, developing its own terminology and relying on acronyms and jargon that are well understood on the inside but may not be the language of a given customer. When Matthew T. Harmon, director of Web Communications at the Department of Homeland Security worked with the Department of Technical Communication in Mercer University’s School of Engineering on a website usability study not long ago, students there identified excessive use of unexplained acronyms as a hurdle for target visitors.
Harmon’s advice: “Implement the Plain Language Act.” This 2010 law aimed “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” It’s a simple concept, but hard to execute. By eliminating jargon, acronyms and complicated language, the act aims to make government communication more accessible to the public.
The Center for Plain Language, a non-profit dedicated to those principles in government at all levels, measures participating agency’s performance and scores them annually. In the most recent results, from 2016, DHS received a B for plain language use – up from Ds when the annual report cards began. Overall, improvement has been dramatic: In 2013, of 20 agencies participating, one failed and nine received Ds for plain writing; only the Social Security Administration managed an A grade. But by 2016, among 18 participating agencies, eight scored an A- or better and only one scored as low as a C.
But with only 18 agencies participating, it’s possible some laggards would rather pass than risk getting a low score.
Clear language has other benefits beyond just making it easier for customers to understand. As it turns out, clarity also helps on the Internet. “It’s a by-product, but plain language also helps your search-engine optimization,” Harmon said. That means when customers search the agency’s website, they’re more likely to get the answers they’re looking for.
Hala Maktabi is director of measurement and performance improvement in the Veterans Experience Office within the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has struggled to improve its ability to respond to veterans’ needs. The agency collapsed hundreds of different websites into a unified vets.gov web service that “aspires to be honest, transparent, respectful and accessible to all visitors.”
VA’s customer experience efforts have extended across the enterprise, looking at form letters and web pages. In one project last year, former Military Times newspaper writers were brought in to help rewrite bureaucratic language into more understandable, veteran-friendly terms.
Maktabi said the agency is now turning a corner, including better ways to query and measure veterans’ responses to their VA experience. “We did not have a system to understand and listen to our customers,” she said. Her enterprise measurement office was established specifically to gather that data and use it to improve. “It really measures what matters to veterans, to catch early signals and strategic insight,” Maktabi said. In the future, VA will be able to be more proactive in anticipating veterans’ needs.
David Meyer, vice president of Military Health and Veterans Affairs with General Dynamics Health Solutions, agrees. “Veteran insights and associated data are critical to delivering responsive services that can continuously adapt to the veterans, families, survivors and caregivers needs,” he said. “Organizations are often rich in data, but find it a challenge to use that data in truly meaningful ways. The key is understanding what data to extract and what action can be taken to actually improve customers’ experiences. Business intelligence tools are available, but are only part of the solution. It really comes down to ensuring the technology is aligned to the mission, with the customer at the forefront of the discussion.”
Empathy is critical
At US Citizenship and Immigration Services, listening to customer feedback helped officials optimize its website for mobile users and also to provide better service in response to questions. “You’re not doing this just to be more efficient and effective,” said Mariela Melero, associate director of the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate at USCIS. “You have to be empathetic.”
USCIS serves a vast and varied constituency, including many who are not native English speakers. Some are already deep into the immigration or citizenship process; others are just trying to get the lay of the land. Both are important customers, she said, and each has different needs. Understanding the different customers means anticipating those different needs.
“This is where personas and customer journey mapping come in,” said Tish Falco, senior director of customer experience at General Dynamics Information Technology. “These two tools help an organization better understand the customer by seeing things from the customer’s perspective and understanding key ‘Moments that Matter’ along the different touch points – both across each business silo interaction and across the organization. Together, personas and journey maps – based on real customer insights – help build empathy and provide focus around key strategic initiatives.”
Falco said it is important to understand and define the different customer personas coming to one’s agency, and then to map these individual customer experience journeys as the customer moves from initial engagement to actually completing their objective. “Understanding the distinct needs of segments within your customer base and dependencies across the journey will help you create a more personalized, engaging and easy-to-do business with experience.”
At USCIS, for example, the agency found that applicants in a waiting process often want the reassurance that comes from speaking to a person. And when they check on status, they want answers that reflect their particular circumstances. “They want an answer that’s for someone like them,” Melero said, because they know situations vary depending on many issues, such as country of origin, family status, prior history and other issues. “They tell us: Please personalize this experience for me.”
Personalizing service is something commercial industry has gotten better and better at. Online vendors remember your preferences and serve up content related to the things that interested you in the past.
Government agencies aren’t there yet. But they are making progress – by focusing on data to drive decisions. “I will back up anyone on my team who makes a change based on data – and a little common sense,” said Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for Human Services at the Department of Health and Human Services. He advocates an agile approach to improvement: Make a change, measure its effect, then see what can be done to improve further.
To draw in more perspectives, he established an Engagement Team that meets regularly to talk about these issues and to build wider understanding across functional lines within the agency. He said he’s constantly inviting new people to join. “This is where we talk about everything,” Weber explained. “It’s not a decision point. But it’s a connecting point. And that’s important, too.”
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