Customer-Centric Government Won’t Be Great Again in 2017 and Other Government Tech Predictions

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Expect cyber and data to remain in the spotlight, while areas like customer service will see less momentum.

Rick Parrish is principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Although the nascent Trump administration has said virtually nothing about customer-centric government, the actions Donald Trump has promised in other policy areas will impact the customer-centricity of federal agencies -- in some cases reversing efforts by the Obama administration. In 2017, expect:

Federal spending on customer interaction technologies will stay flat. By our calculations, federal agencies will spend about $26 billion in calendar year 2017 on technologies for engaging with customers. These systems—which Forrester calls business technology—include software, hardware and services to engage with customers digitally, use analytics for better service delivery, and pursue internet-of-things initiatives. This level of spending, which represents about a third of total federal technology spending in 2017, won’t change much even if the new administration enacts a major stimulus plan that includes large-scale spending on federal business technology. That’s because significant purchases resulting from such a stimulus package wouldn’t start until at least 2018.

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Cybersecurity concerns will hinder some digital services and slow the growth of others. It’s clear cybersecurity is a priority for Trump and that both federal agencies and customers want more secure digital interactions after years of cybersecurity scandals. In this environment, every new federal leader will work hard to avoid being the first whose agency gets hacked under the new administration. As a result, some federal leaders will quickly implement new security measures for existing digital services without taking the time for input from digital experience designers. These interactions will get worse as agencies roll out identity verification procedures that are needlessly confusing and inconvenient. Leaders will also go slower than necessary on the development of new digital services because they fear opening new vulnerabilities.

Traditionalist managers will claw back some customer-centric rules. Ever since the White House announced the customer service cross-agency priority goal for the fiscal year 2015 budget, some federal middle managers have resisted the administration’s stronger push for a more customer-centric government. These entrenched managers will use Trump’s promise to order agencies to eliminate regulations “which are not necessary [and] do not improve public safety” as an excuse to go beyond private-sector deregulation and gut the rules their agencies have enacted to drive their own customer-centricity. For instance, managers who chafe under new rules governing their agencies’ digital services will argue they’re needlessly restrictive and burdensome. As a result, progress on customer-centricity will become more piecemeal as some agencies move ahead and others fall back.

Federal data will become more open. The DATA Act already requires federal agencies to use governmentwide standards to report all spending data starting in May 2017. Many agencies also use Data.gov and other platforms to release a wealth of other information. The Trump administration—interested in shining a starker light on federal spending and helping the private sector leverage federal data—will push for the standardized, digital publication of even more granular spending information and other federal data sets. To help this effort and ease the burden of federal paperwork on businesses, the Trump administration will also move agencies toward a single open data standard for the information they collect from the private sector. These efforts will be a boon for businesses that benefit from federal data and expend significant resources complying with agencies’ disparate reporting requirements.

A private-sector focus will cause 18F and the U.S. Digital Service to atrophy. With the Obama administration’s support, 18F and the USDS quickly became leaders in customer-centric digital government. In two and a half years, 18F alone grew from about a dozen to over 170 people and rolled out a range of design and consulting services. Some companies complained they were losing business as a result. The Trump administration will bring a strong preference for the private sector and a buy rather than build mentality that will gut much of 18F's and USDS’ business. The administration’s hiring freeze will also prohibit these offices from replacing personnel they lose to a corporate world eager for their skills and contacts. 18F and USDS won’t disappear entirely. However, with their digital design, development and consulting work moved to the private sector, they’ll focus primarily on helping federal agencies buy commercial off-the-shelf software—a far more modest mission than they have today.

The pressure on Veterans Affairs will rise. Trump’s only comments about customer-centric government center on the Veterans Affairs Department. During the campaign, Trump said “all veterans should be able to view accurate wait times with the push of a button” and promised to “accelerate and expand investments in … technology to deliver best-in-class care [at VA] quickly and effectively.” These ideas aren’t anything new—VA is already working on them. However, the high-profile nature of Trump’s promises means he and his new VA secretary will push these efforts even more urgently than VA’s current leadership. However, this pressure could do more harm than good if it forces VA to pursue highly visible, frenetic activity over sober, sustainable progress.

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