Customer Experience Bills Pose Hidden Risks for Citizens

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A section of the bills calls for anonymizing data, but that could prevent some agencies from helping with their outreach missions.

Brian Michael is general manager of the public sector practice at Medallia.

“Of the people, by the people, for the people.” In its simplest and most straightforward definition, the primary role of government is to serve its citizens. Government services frame and fuel our everyday lives by providing public education, responding to disasters and emergencies, maintaining the safety of our citizens, or protecting our natural resources.

And although government is the ultimate service-oriented organization, its core objective is often focused on maximizing efficiency and effectiveness rather than on improving the overall citizen-to-government experience—and federal agencies have the satisfaction numbers to match.

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The Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2017 (S.1088, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and H.R.2846, sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas,) is a clear indicator that federal agency priorities are shifting as they relate to improving the citizen experience. The bills will empower agencies to gather voluntary feedback through their citizen-facing channels and then subsequently develop a scorecard for each agency based on citizen satisfaction.

This legislation is a positive first step at helping agencies to focus their efforts toward transforming the citizen experience. The process of evaluating service delivery will spur many agencies to adjust their customer service policies and procedures in order to improve their citizen satisfaction metrics. Making the information transparent to the public will also encourage government leaders to allocate resources toward improving the overall citizen experience.

However, the bill also includes language that will unintentionally undermine the government's ability to truly transform and engage with citizens. In both bills, Section 5 states that “each agency that solicits voluntary feedback shall ensure that … responses to the solicitation of voluntary feedback remain anonymous and shall not be traced to specific individuals or entities.” If passed with this language, this bill will make it against the law for any federal government agency to collect feedback that can be traced back to a specific individual.

The intent of the authors is likely a desire to ensure that citizens submitting feedback aren’t at risk of retaliation, or that personal information won’t be released through a Freedom of Information Act request or online leak. While these are valid concerns that merit discussion, the overall effect of this section would likely produce some unintended and dangerous consequences.

It is absolutely appropriate to provide citizens with the option to remain anonymous. But making it mandatory that collected citizen feedback remains anonymous is problematic because it removes the government’s ability to contact those who could need help. For agencies like the Veterans Affairs Department and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which deal with citizens in crisis every day through many different channels, this will significantly impede their ability to quickly and directly assist those threatened by issues like mental illness, homelessness and substance abuse.

By eliminating the ability to respond directly to feedback, agency staff is not given the opportunity to solve many of the reported issues. This ability to interact directly with the public is a critical step in ensuring citizen satisfaction and safety.

A few meaningful revisions to the bill would ensure that sufficient information is collected to make truly transformative changes. Ideas for consideration would include:

  • Replace the word “anonymous” with “confidential” as defined in U.S. Government Code Title 18 to prohibit sensitive citizen data from being printed, published or divulged by anyone employed or contracting with the federal government.
  • Create agencywide data access policies to ensure that access to information is limited based on the staff’s role in providing assistance, addressing issues, or gathering detailed information.
  • Provide citizens the choice to opt out of receiving requests for feedback.  

Considering ideas such as these above would allow agencies to engage in a dialogue with citizens in an effort to enhance their experience while providing the assurance that their personal information is only being used for this explicit purpose.

Many citizens already feel like nameless entities when dealing with federal agencies. Funneling their anonymous feedback into a database mirrors that sentiment by treating them as faceless data points.

Citizens need to know their government is listening and responding to their concerns, and agencies must demonstrate empathy for their citizens and that they are invested in the overall outcome of the services they deliver. This is critical to ensuring citizen satisfaction and overall mission success: delivering a government of the people, by the people, for the people.