Tech Alone Can’t Solve Government’s Customer Experience Clunkers


Still, the biggest challenge to the government improving its customer experience still lies with people, not tech, experts say.

The federal customer experience generally lags behind that of leading private sector companies, but technology is helping select agencies close the gap.

It’s important to realize, however, that technology is an enabler, not a cure-all.

The biggest challenge to the government improving its customer experience still lies with people, not tech, experts say.

“Having a great team is important, but look at the challenges everyone faces when having different operations in a silo,” said Abraham Marinez, who heads up the Education Department’s student aid customer-experience efforts. He spoke March 24 at a summit on customer experience hosted by Government Executive and Nextgov.

Marinez has championed efforts to make the application process for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, more user friendly. FAFSA officials now help assist prospective students via social media, for example.

He said more agencies should engage with users on social media and abide by open government and open data standards.

But even the best technology means absolutely nothing without a talented, digitally-skilled workforce, Marinez said.

People aren’t only the driving force behind technology implementations designed to improve customer experience. They are also a vital source of feedback, said Phaedra Chrousos, the General Services Administration’s newly named chief customer officer.

In a keynote at the summit, Chrousos emphasized the importance of “the voice of the customer.”

For example, GSA -- which manages much of the government’s real estate -- is responsible for developing action plans, or blueprints, for how building space will be used. GSA manages some 9,000 federal buildings that house federal employees.

GSA revamped its paper-based tenant satisfaction survey, conducted every three years at a cost of $1.2 million, and moved it online. The online survey is far cheaper, about $24,000, leading to huge cost savings. Its length was shortened to increase tenants' response rates, Chrousos said. The end result was a streamlined process for gathering customer feedback that could later be analyzed against the actions building managers take.

“This was the first time building managers had done action plans based on tenant data, ever,” she added, describing recent efforts to get more feedback from the users of GSA properties.

Alexis Bonnell, director of the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Office of Engagement and Communications, highlighted another instance in which an agency changed the way it viewed customers.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which houses the Global Development Lab, launched the Ebola Grand Challenge in response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. The whole project went from concept to challenge in seven days, Bonnell said -- far faster than any government request for proposal could ever work.

Some of the innovative solutions offered up came from unlikely sources, Bonnell said.

“You have an incredible, purpose-driven generation,” Bonnell said. “We highly underestimate who can solve world challenges and problems.”

(Image via venimo/