How Better Digital Services Can Result in Agency Savings

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Research says budget slashing and modernizing technology are compatible ideas.

Dave Lewan is responsible for managing ForeSee’s focus on public sector, including federal and state government departments and agencies, nonprofit organizations, associations and higher-education institutions.

The path to more conservative government spending lies in collecting and analyzing citizen (customer) experience data. This isn’t hyperbole or exaggeration, but rather a foregone conclusion with nearly two decades of research to back it up. And Congress seems to agree the introduction of the Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2017, a new piece of bipartisan legislation, is aimed at simplifying the process agencies go through to gather public feedback about their customer service.

For instance, citizens who have a good experience with a federal website are 87 percent more likely to use the website as a primary resource going forward, according to the latest ForeSee E-Government FXI report. That data point—which reflects responses from tens of millions of citizen experiences—may not seem like a huge revelation, but it is. Simply examine the operational spending for government agencies, and things become more clear.

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One example of this sort of savings would be in comparing the cost of providing services in person versus the offering the same services via a website or mobile app. Any business person who has dealt with service center spending will be quick to tell you those in-person services are more expensive. But let's go a step further and play with some numbers.

Take a typical government agency with a local office that helps meet citizen needs and answer questions. While you’re there, 12 people (counting you) are standing in line waiting to speak with the clerk for various purposes. On average in the business world, it costs $7 to $13 per person for a live service interaction such as an in-person visit, according to recent research by Harvard Business Review. That means the operational costs for those standing in line would be around $84 to $156.

However, if the same services are delivered through the organization’s official website, that channel can not only serve far more than 12 people in the same timeframe, it can also handle multiple kinds of tasks people are seeking to accomplish—not to mention the cost analysis on average can be measured in mere pennies.

One federal agency we work with saw a 5 percent decrease in calls to its call center after making improvements to its website that answered citizen questions more efficiently. The lowered call volume saved nearly $6 million annually. Another ForeSee federal client realized 34 percent of visitors to its site were coming to apply for benefits, a task that had to be accomplished in person or over the phone. Analysis revealed that making it possible to apply for benefits online would save the agency more than $6.5 million per year from visitors who were calling because they couldn't accomplish their task on the website.

So if you’re curious how the Trump administration will successfully implement a reduction in federal spending across nearly all agencies—as is a prominent feature of the proposed budget it unveiled a month ago—you’d do well to look toward strategies that measure and benchmark the experiences citizens have with digital government services.

There is simply no more effective way to build efficiency into government than to collect and act on real-time citizen experience data. Unlike other measures that are selective and subject to the winds of politics, data-driven efficiencies are not influenced by lobbyists or promises made when running for office.

Doing so also lines up with an executive order Donald Trump signed May 1, which created the American Technology Council, a group trying to "transfer and modernize" the U.S. government's information technology systems. The order reads, “Americans deserve better digital services from their government.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The good news is, these two concepts—budget slashing and modernizing technology—are compatible ideas. Providing better digital services to citizens can actually help achieve many of the cost efficiencies he hopes for without having to reduce government services. However, in order for better technologies and digital services to meet the needs of citizens and cut costs, measurement, data and analysis are imperative.

The Trump administration may actually be off to a good start: satisfaction with federal government websites (up half a point) and mobile site and apps (up 1.6 points) has increased since Trump took office; although the increase of half a point is not statistically significant.

The transition to the new administration has been rocky, with widespread reports of understaffing, a bare-bones federal budget proposal and regular stories of federal websites changing on a whim (and for political reasons). Yet, despite these challenges, citizens’ experience with federal websites has actually improved, showing digital experience is based on something more fundamental than news headlines or even changing administrations.

Measuring citizen experience with federal agencies spans four presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump), six presidential terms and leadership from both Republicans and Democrats. In the last two decades, measuring digital experiences has risen to the forefront as a time-tested performance metric for delivering on two of the federal government's biggest goals: transparency/trust and fiscal responsibility.

So there you have it. Critical data from citizen experience insights can not only cut costs, improve digital government services and boost citizen trust, but it can also lead to greater satisfaction in government. We must ensure as administrations and political priorities change, e-gov remains apolitical. Decisions to change the content or functionality websites and apps should be driven by the needs and expectations of citizens, not political directives.

My message to the Trump administration is this: If you want bankable, measurable, even braggable savings, pay attention to and act on citizen data, and instruct your agencies and departments to do the same.

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