The CX executive order turns one

President Joe Biden signs an executive order related to government services in the Oval Office of the White House Dec. 13, 2021.

President Joe Biden signs an executive order related to government services in the Oval Office of the White House Dec. 13, 2021. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The White House says that agencies have made improvements to websites, mobile apps and more. Several experts say that long-term success will depend on the staying power of customer experience as a priority and methodology.

It's been one year since the Biden administration marked improving the public's perceptions of and satisfaction with their interactions with the federal government as a major priority with an executive order on customer experience.

The objective is to increase public trust in government. The means: the technology, processes and policies that drive government services. 

As for the stakes, government reform efforts are "absolutely tied" to administration efforts to promote democracy, Jason Miller, Deputy Director of Management at the Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday during a virtual event about the management agenda, which also features CX as one of three major commitments.

"In building trust and reinforcing democracy, [it is important to ensure] that we make it a priority that governments are delivering for people and that we can show how governments are delivering for their people each and every day," he said.

The executive order laid out a to-do list with 36 improvements and launched multi-agency pilots to make life events, like experiencing a disaster, that bring people to government less onerous. 

Redesigned websites, simplified applications, digital options for paper processes and direct certifications that remove benefits applications altogether  feature on that to-do list

In June, OMB announced that $100 million of the Technology Modernization Fund would be devoted to CX projects that cut red tape for the American public and the government's workforce.

A major tool the administration wants to use is human-centered design methodology, which orients the building of services around how people experience government. There's also a focus on equity and reaching those who might not historically or typically make it to government services. 

Asked about progress thus far, an OMB official told FCW via email, "we believe that a strong foundation is in place, we've taken tangible actions since its launch and we will continue to focus on effective implementation." 

The official took note of a few accomplishments, including the addition of authentication for the Department of Veterans Affairs' website and mobile app, the simplification of the Department of Agriculture's farm loans application and the use by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services of research and user interviews to assist in website and tool design and improvement. 

Stakeholders say that the attention has accelerated momentum and increased awareness.

"It's like turning a battleship," said Martha Dorris, former longtime senior executive at the General Services administration and founder of Dorris Consulting International. "We've turned it at a quicker pace in the past two years than we have in the past."

Abena Apau, acting division director for the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center in the Department of Agriculture, said at a recent Partnership for Public Service event that when she started out in 2019, she would get "lost looks" when she talked about CX. Now, she gets consulted at the front end of projects. 

What does success look like? 

One success metric is actual government services in agencies, something that Dorris said can be difficult to judge because of the lack of service-level metrics like processing time across agencies.

Success would also mean that there is a fundamental and lasting rethinking of how the government does business, several experts in and out of government told FCW. 

"We need to build these solutions with, for and by the citizens, and that requires us to have a much more disciplined and deeper capability and reliance on human-centered design," Sonny Hashmi, commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration, told FCW. "These are not just buzzwords…  but really developing those mechanisms to sit down with and understand the pain points of the users of those services is more important than it's been ever before, and it needs to be a discipline present in all parts of government."

The "long-term test" is "whether these ideas can survive a particular administration and become embedded in government," said Donald Moynihan, chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown and expert on administrative burdens and government reform.

The White House has made changes to incorporate CX into the machinery of government.

Thirteen agencies now have CX officers, and three have offices focused on internal CX, according to research recently presented at the annual Vision Federal Market Forecast by the Professional Services Council. Dorris and others have pushed for the creation of a federal chief customer officer, something Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has signaled interest in.

Where does Congress, and politics, fit in?

Loren DeLonge Schulman, vice president of research, evaluation and modernizing government at the Partnership for Public Service, told FCW that CX tends to be bipartisan. 

"I hope that no matter the size of government or the role of government …that [it] can hopefully be a bipartisan view that government services and benefits should be as effective as possible to get to the right people," she said. 

As for how the so-called administrative burdens wind up in government programs in the first place, Moynihan said that the cause varies. Some programs are simply poorly designed by Congress. In other cases, ideology and values come into play. 

"There are certainly cases where I think for social programs in particular, conservative elected officials, but also members of the public, are more comfortable with programs only when they have a lot of burdens in them and where government has truly verified that someone is eligible and the possibility of something like fraud is almost zero," said Moynihan. 

He pointed to efforts to attach work requirements to Medicaid in the Trump administration, saying it wasn't "really about fraud, but about deservedness."

Regardless, Congress might be called upon. OMB and agencies will be looking for "changes needed for both statutory authorities and resources" as it implements the management agenda, the OMB official told FCW. 

A Capitol Hill aide close to planning decisions for the next Congress told FCW although they expect more bicameral, bipartisan interest in CX in the coming session, "Congress is looking for results."

"If the administration wants to engender bipartisan interest and support, it needs to more aggressively and publicly make the case as to why their CX priorities matter to the voters that elect members of Congress," the aide said.

Hashmi told FCW that GSA is considering targeting the $100 million set aside for CX in the TMF for life event pilots and high-impact service provider work, but that more funding will be required down the road.

"While the TMF is a great place to jumpstart programs," Hashmi said, "many of these programs will [take] many years and will require continuous investments, and so it's going to be important for Congress to continue to support. Obviously, we have to continue to show results along the way.

"It's not an academic exercise," Hashmi said when asked for his pitch to lawmakers. "The last two or three years the pandemic has shown us that when agencies invest in CX and digital capabilities, that they are able to deliver despite unprecedented challenges."

Pointing to the rollout of COVID-19 testing kits delivery, Hashmi said the federal government has shown good examples of success, "The question is, how do we continue to scale that impact?"