Does the Customer Know Best When it Comes to Federal Services?

Flickr user O'Reilly Conferences

After the implosion, the federal government learned the hard way the importance of customer experience.

Former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson came to work for the U.S. government last year leading the rapid fix of the Obama administration’s high-profile botched rollout of

The site’s doomed launch -- complete with technology flaws and procurement mishaps -- earned its share of bad press. But lost in the political firestorm was the utter customer-experience fail the site represented.

When the government opened its electronic doors to nearly 20 million Americans in October 2013, it opened its doors to 20 million customers shopping for insurance plans for themselves and family members. That only 500,000 such customers were able to complete applications over a three-week period would surely have earned the government a beyond-terrible Yelp rating -- on par with some of the worst of all-time.  

That the public and media focus remained on the technological aspect of the failure is perhaps indicative of the administration’s attitudes at the time. In the rush to get the website up and running, the administration lost focus of whom the site was being built for.

That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

Dickerson, speaking at the Customer Experience Summit in Washington, hosted by Government Executive and Nextgov, said a website simply being “up and available” can be an example of improved customer service. He didn’t specifically mention’s failed rollout, but he didn’t have to.

With the launch of the new government analytics dashboard last week, we now know hundreds of thousands of Americans use government websites at any given moment, and we know they aren’t surfing those websites for fun: They’re clicking for government services.

The government is beginning to realize the “customer-knows-best” approach might just be the right one after all.

“Government agencies sometimes drift to serving their own needs more than they do their customers,” said Dickerson, the administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. 

What does a more user-centric program look like? Dickerson cited Transportation Security Administration’s pre-check program, which now boasts 1 million pre-screened participants.

Those sorts of standout efforts, though, are few and far between in federal customer service, which a November 2014 Forrester Research study called “disastrously weak.” A recent Government Executive cover story detailed the White House’s extensive efforts to revamp federal customer service.

New offices like 18F, within the General Services Administration, and Dickerson’s White House digital office will undoubtedly help shape the way a brick-and-mortar government interacts with a smartphone-wielding public that prefers to do its business wherever it has a decent Internet connection.

So too will a cross-agency customer service working group, chaired by Social Security Administration acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin and Lisa Danzig, associate director for personnel and performance management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Speaking Tuesday, Danzig announced the government will soon pilot a “Federal Feedback Button” across several government websites to boost customer feedback.

Danzig compared the as-of-yet unlaunched feedback button to a “Yelp for government” that would provide real-time data collection and a “visual representation of what customer service looks like.” A pilot will launch later this spring.

“It’s an incredibly powerful tool,” Danzig said.

If the pilot proves successful, Danzig said funding is included in the 2016 fiscal budget to further expand the initiative across government. Imagine rating not only government websites, but, eventually, being able to rate in-person interactions or other customer-facing government services.

That type of interaction is reminiscent of the customer-to-business relationship in the private sector, where customers use a multitude of applications and social media in their interactions with companies. In the private sector, customer feedback drives business decisions, forcing companies and corporations to adapt and improve or risk losing business.