In December 2019, federal agencies will submit publicly available reports to Congress outlining plans to modernize their websites. These reports are an early step required by the 21st Century IDEA Act designed to dramatically improve the way American citizens access information and government services. This is an encouraging development that could create new efficiencies, save money and help increase trust in the government, but the improvements must go beyond incremental operational advancements.
An estimated 18 million people now visit federal government websites every day. While users recognize that federal websites continue to improve, commercial sites are often viewed as more user-friendly, flexible and visually appealing, according to a recent survey. More than 60 percent of Americans indicated that federal websites are “far more of a hassle” than commercial sites. They identified finding information, navigating the site and a lack of mobile-friendly interfaces as key pain points.
Citizens are compelled, and in some cases legally obligated, to interact with federal agencies and, unlike the commercial market, they don’t have the option to switch to a competitor. The federal government needs to maintain the social contract and trust with citizens to keep improving the way it delivers the services taxpayers deserve and expect, despite the fact that they may be operating with the security of a monopoly-like position.
The factors that cause federal government websites to fall behind the commercial sector are understandable. The list is long, but bureaucracy, risk aversion, budget, lack of competitive and financial incentives and long contracting processes all play a role. These challenges exist in the commercial sector too, but they’re not nearly as burdensome.
Despite the challenges, there are early signs that the federal government is on its way to achieve the vision of the 21st Century IDEA Act. Federal spending focused on digital citizen services rose 17 percent over the last year, from $3.6 billion to $4.2 billion. The Office of Management and Budget put a policy in place that’s driving experience accountability for some federal agencies to Congress. And, the executive branch has created several entities to advance the customer experience, including the United States Digital Service, 18F — an elite IT helpdesk for the federal government, the Veterans Affairs Experience Office and the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence for IT modernization.
The additional resources, congressional requirements and early signs of progress raise expectations that we’ll indeed be able to revolutionize the federal government’s digital customer experience. But to accomplish this feat, we’ll need a comprehensive approach. Doing the job right means going beyond design and technology to incorporate data science, security, change management and a firm understanding of the domain.
This isn’t just a technology challenge; it’s a human challenge. Success is based on criteria encompassing trust, efficiency, equity, helpfulness, accessibility, emotion and satisfaction. It requires big-solution providers who understand the unique challenges of each federal agency, along with the nuances at play and the right formula to apply. Cybersecurity, change management, data science, qualitative and quantitative research to determine customers’ values, goals, wishes and needs all contribute to effective customer experience.
The federal government’s recently revamped Recreation.gov website — a user-friendly portal for citizens to book recreational activities (such as camping, permits and tours) on federal lands and waters across the country — is an excellent example of infusing the customer experience into the DNA of a website. The customer experience features include an interactive map similar to Airbnb and Zillow’s commercial websites, optimization to handle heavy traffic loads during peak booking periods and a mobile application to expand accessibility to the site.
The federal government’s decision to overhaul Recreation.gov is paying off. Over the past year, some campsite facilities have seen reservations increase by approximately 30 percent, while the site’s Net Promoter Score has increased by about 20 points over the course of the past 6 months. This effect is not limited to Recreation.gov. Since 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ investment in the Veterans Experience Office and other ground-breaking CX moves has led to a 4-point increase in the VA’s CX scores on Forrester’s CX Index and a 17 percent rise in Veterans’ trust in the VA over the past three years (from 55 percent to 72 percent, according to VEO’s quarterly VA-Wide Trust Survey).
If we can achieve the vision to improve the customer experience at the same level as the commercial sector, the impact will go beyond the digital space. Customer confidence in federal government websites won’t just grow, it will influence the expectations of the customer experience across the entire organization, including the traditional delivery of government information and services.
As federal agencies prepare to submit their 21st Century IDEA Act reports to Congress this December, they should remember they are at the beginning, not the end. Achieving excellent customer experience is an ongoing process, not a destination. It requires constant vigilance and investment to keep up with the expectations of their users, the American people.
Santiago Milian is a principal/director of experience, John Gray Parker a lead technologist of experience and Cameron Hanson a lead associate of experience at management and IT consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.