American citizens expect speedy delivery and massive choice from Amazon, quick transportation options from Uber and Lyft, and instant feedback from Facebook and Twitter.

In an age in which citizens' expectations of services are rapidly increasing, the federal government must rise to the challenge — and government officials are pushing their agencies to transform how they deliver services, whether it's processing applications for benefits, helping citizens navigate through federal websites, or assisting victims of a natural disaster.

And as Americans become accustomed to dealing with companies on their own terms, they deserve a government that can also be more responsive to their needs, said Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

In March 19 guidance to agencies, Cobert said the government must keep pace with the rapidly evolving expectations of the public: solicit feedback, streamline processes and do what it takes to deliver consistent quality.

"Citizens and businesses expect government services to be well-designed, efficient, and generally comparable to the services they receive from leading private-sector organizations," she said.

Better customer service means happier citizens, better return on investment and even savings as agencies find ways to deliver a wide array of services on tight budgets, Cobert said in an April 15 blog post.

"Over the course of my career, in sectors as diverse as mobile telecom, the leisure industry and financial services, I've seen how efforts to streamline and redesign processes and put new technologies to work can have genuine impact on improved service delivery and customer service — and the bottom line," she said.

President Obama has made customer service improvement a primary management priority, including it in the administration's management goals and in agency-specific performance goals.

The extra emphasis comes while agencies are still struggling to meet the high expectations driven by an increasingly digital world.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) showed overall satisfaction with government services falling 2.6 points in 2014 — down to 64.6 out of 100 possible points. In 2012, overall satisfaction stood at 68.4 points.

Overall, the federal government lags behind the private sector with industries such as energy utilities, retail companies and health care fields ranking significantly higher.

Only Internet service companies rank lower than the government at 63 points.

Turning around high-profile errors

The Veterans Affairs Department, still reeling from a scandal that showed some employees were manipulating patient wait lists in order to improve performance measures, has been pushing to improve customer service under the current VA secretary, Bob McDonald. That effort, known as MyVA, is leaving no corner of the department untouched.

An advisory committee recently formed to guide the effort includes executives from Amazon, the United States Automobile Association, the Cleveland Clinic and other private sector, nonprofit and government organizations.

"The success of MyVA will be veterans who are better served by VA, so the work of this committee is incredibly important," said McDonald in a blog post March 19. "The collective wisdom of our committee members is invaluable, and each of them understands that VA must improve customer service and focus the department on the needs of our veterans."

Tom Allin, whom McDonald appointed in January as the department's first chief veterans' experience officer, has been building a customer service team of 240 people across the country. They will look to optimize all areas of agency management, including operations, governance, IT, advocacy and navigation of services, to better serve veteran customers, Allin said in an interview.

Among the team's efforts:

  • Allowing veterans to access all of the department's 350 possible benefits through a single website, organized by which benefits each veteran is qualified to receive, and tools for applying for or managing those benefits.
  • Integrating more than 200 different databases across the VA so there is a single place that stores all relevant customer information and veterans can get the information they need quickly. Similarly, various bureaus within VA will more easily be able to share a veteran's information across the department when required.
  • Organizing more than 100 community advisory committees and regular meetings in order to gather feedback and direct input from the veteran community.

"We are the tip of the spear, allowing the department to do a better job by looking to its processes," Allin said.

Ultimately, Allin wants to create a system that caters to veterans on the platform they choose and at the times they want, whether those customers want to access their benefits, apply for medical appointments or provide feedback, he said.

Reorganizing with service in mind

The General Services Administration, for example, is reorganizing everything from the lines of services it offers to how it structures itself to deliver those services. Part of that effort is an initiative called Category Management, which will employ new digital tools, spending databases and subject matter experts to help customer agencies streamline their procurements and reduce contract spending.

GSA is also working to consolidate its Multiple Award Schedule to provide agencies an easier way to shop for supplies and services and to give companies a streamlined series of contracts to bid for, instead of having to spend time and money on duplicative contract vehicles.

"The changes are really being driven by our customer agencies," said Tiffany Hixson, director for GSA's Northwest/Arctic Region, said. "It's a big lift, but it's something we really need to do."

She said the improvements and reorganizations are already drawing positive feedback from agencies and industry partners, and that GSA will continue to focus on improving its internal processes and its external efforts to better drive customer service.

The agency has also appointed an industry liaison, Kathy Jocoy, to work directly with the private sector, hear complaints, anticipate problems and serve as a direct conduit for innovative ideas or contracting improvements.

GSA has expanded its industry outreach efforts to include monthly webinars, interactive posts on the agency's website and direct conversations with industry organizations and companies to hear and address concerns, Jocoy said.

Tapping into the power of social media

On March 18, musician and record producer Butch Walker was flying from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, and was having problems getting through the screening process.

He posted a tweet about his ongoing frustration with American Airlines and TSA PreCheck, and in a few minutes Transportation Security Administration spokesman Ross Feinstein contacted him and worked out the problem.

Feinstein said TSA sees social media as the beginning of an improved customer experience.

"We work very closely with the airlines, especially the U.S. airlines, the major ones, of course. If we can work together to help troubleshoot an issue, we will be glad to do that," Feinstein said. He said the agency — which has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — is continuing to expand its presence to educate travelers and solve their problems.

Earlier this year, a delay in an airport shuttle caused the closure of a TSA checkpoint, and the agency tweeted live updates for passengers until they were able to reopen.

"It's another great way that we can help work with passengers and learn their concerns. Ultimately, if we fix an issue that they have, then the next experience they have is just that much better," Feinstein said.

It's a trend that is catching on with agencies, as social media networks continue to grow and become a larger part of the daily lives of agency customers.

In 2012, the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Education Department started answering questions from people on Twitter as part of an "office hours" program. The first few sessions were packed, so the agency expanded the hours again — and again.

The response was so overwhelmingly positive that the agency now engages with people on social media routinely, according to Abraham Marinez, the chief of staff of the Education Department's Customer Experience Office.

"We engage with customers now; we listen to them and hear what they are saying," Marinez said.

He said the key to becoming more customer-service centric is having the right team and a commitment to changing processes to make the customer experience better and easier.

The rapid rise of mobile technologies and the corresponding jump in citizen expectations is pushing agencies to do more and more, said Dan Helfrich, leader of Deloitte's Federal Civilian Sector.

"We are in a time of the most rapid change and the most willing experimentation by the government I have seen," Helfrich said. "The ubiquitous presence of mobility in consumers' lives is translating into a higher degree of citizen expectations."

Many agency transactions, such as tax filing at the IRS or ticket purchasing at Amtrak, can be easily improved because of their retail nature and the advances in technologies aimed at those consumer markets, Helfrich said.

"That's the beauty of customer experience when done properly. It offers an enhanced experience delivered at a lower cost," he said.