Stakeholders wonder how to sustain CX momentum long-term

The Agriculture Department's Washington D.C. headquarters

The Agriculture Department's Washington D.C. headquarters USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Is it time for a national strategy for customer experience?

The Agriculture Department is reaching out to farmers to figure out why some of its programs are underutilized. Abena Apau, the acting division director for the performance, accountability and risk division of the department's Farm Production and Conservation Business Center, is mining through 7,500 responses to a survey of "prospective customers" who are eligible for services but not using them. 

So far, it's clear that some eligible people simply don't know about the department's services, and if they do, they're confused about how to access them. The department can make it easier for individuals to know what they're eligible for, Apau said during a Tuesday FCW webcast. 

"It's our job to tell that story a little bit better, so that in the moments where they're struggling, they don't have to be the ones to now figure it out," Apau said.

The survey is one example of a push to rework government so that it's easier to navigate, something that the Biden administration has made a priority. 

That focus on customer experience, or CX, is a continuation and iteration of goals shared by the previous two administrations, but some stakeholders say that more needs to be done to ensure that momentum continues.

"How do we enshrine these things so that it's not just about an executive order [or] President's Management Agenda," said ServiceNow Federal CTO Jonthan Alboum at the Tuesday event.

"There needs to be some kind of formalization," said Alboum, who was previously the USDA CIO and held other roles in that department and in the General Services Administration. "I'd like to think of it as a national digital strategy – something that makes it very clear, that is required by law for the federal [chief information officer] or [Office of Management and Budget] to manage a national digital strategy."

"To really change long term, sometimes you need Congress to weigh in and put their mark on this and apply the funding that makes this really achievable over many, many administrations, which is what it would take to make this kind of tremendous transformation," he said. 

Apau pointed to the role of Congress in terms of funding and customer experience roles in agencies, or "anointed troublemakers… whose job it is, when something isn't going well for a customer, to take that story, follow all the touch points, get to leadership and get decisions made."

The two aren't the first to wonder what it will take to sustain CX as a priority. 

Martha Dorris, founder of Dorris Consulting International and former GSA senior executive, has previously stated that a chief customer experience officer for the government would be helpful.

She told FCW that a strategy could be helpful, but that it shouldn't necessarily be framed as a "digital strategy," but instead a service delivery or CX strategy.

Congress could also legislate around specific CX to-dos for agencies, or codify existing CX priorities, said Dorris.

Loren DeLonge Schulman, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, said on the webcast that she she is "not working on a national CX strategy," but "all of the key ingredients … that are necessary to continue to advance this work—those are very much in progress."

The White House's budget request for fiscal year 2024 also included over $500 million in CX investments across agencies, including over 100 full-time equivalent employees across agencies.

The Office of Management and Budget has already inserted CX priorities into budget prep guidelines for agencies, increasing the likelihood that agencies will continue to have to consider how the public experiences their services since the guidelines aren't usually changed dramatically across administrations.

Donald Moynihan, chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown and expert on administrative burdens and government reform, told FCW via email that he does think it would be "valuable for Congress to do more to institutionalize CX," although there would need to be a balance between providing a common goal or framework and allowing innovation and differences among agencies with different missions and customers. 

"Moving to a more change-focused mindset is another challenge," he said. "A very useful action by Congress or [the Government Accountability Office] might be to look at what has been done in the last few years to get a sense of what a national policy would look like."

Lawmakers have introduced various CX proposals in recent years, including bills to create a chief customer experience officer, change how agencies can get feedback on services and more.

"For better or for worse, government is structured how it's structured. It will take years, decades for us to put all of the pieces together and connect all the dots," Apau said. "In the interim, there's a lot that we can do in the customer experience space to help them help people."