How Agencies Can Fight COVID-19 Backlogs With Customer Experience

Chansom Pantip/

Customer experience doesn't stop because of coronavirus.

When the COVID-19 crisis eventually wanes, government agencies will need to focus on restoring the physical and economic health of our communities. As public-sector workers transition from their work-at-home arrangements and go back to the office, they’ll face surges in their workloads. They’ll also have to strike a balance between handling the backlog and processing incoming service requests. This will be a rare chance to change the way government operates. 

To get ahead of anticipated service backlogs and make a smooth transition into regular operations, the government must do two things as the U.S. moves toward recovery. First, agencies should act now to get ahead of the backlog, and not wait for the dust to settle before making bold changes. Second, agencies must utilize tools that gather and analyze data based on the voices of the people to capture citizens’ needs for and expectations of government services. As the government adjusts to a host of challenges in the coming months, they will need to rely more heavily on public input to deliver services that are seamless and more personalized.

Importance of the Citizen Experience

This pandemic has underscored the importance of the citizen’s customer experience (CX). Government entities have to overcome reductions of in-person services by replacing them with new no-contact alternatives. To do so, agencies must take a human-centered approach by listening to the voices of the people they serve. Agencies have implemented technology to address changing citizen expectations before—such as during the launch of and the awareness campaign around the Affordable Care Act—but nothing near the scale that’s needed now. 

Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to ask those who are closest to it. When an agency is unaware that a problem might exist within a system, communication technology helps users draw attention to it.

Agencies have the opportunity to crowdsource potential solutions to a COVID-19-related backlog. Whether it’s discovering new tools to offset delays in delivering stimulus checks or devising methods to expedite the import of masks and other PPE, citizen feedback can be a low-cost way for government to solve tough problems while building trust through transparency and civic engagement. In Fairfax County, Virginia, officials used crowdsourcing to work with parents on school lunch solutions when the spread of COVID-19 forced their kids home from school. 

In some cases, it might take machine learning to figure out whose request is the most urgent, especially when everyone who reaches out for help feels a sense of urgency. Citizen experience companies can help government researchers use artificial intelligence and machine learning to prioritize current backlogs while simultaneously handling new citizen and resident needs. As agencies receive “new” requests for services while responding to older ones, insights from citizen feedback can help personnel identify cases with the greatest urgency. 

Citizen feedback technology can also be applied to employee experience. Armed with insight into employee preferences, leaders can more effectively adapt to unexpected changes, such as the transition of tens of thousands of federal employees to telework. Agency leaders can check in with their employees via pulsing, video-teleconferencing or texting tools to ask them for suggestions on handling backlogs and feedback on new procedures and technologies. The right tools can save time and allow managers to see problems from the employees’ perspective. Such practices can empower workers, which can enhance productivity.

Taking Action Now

Moments of crisis not only present us with challenges and opportunities, they define us. The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a rare opportunity to use CX methodologies to fuel the kind of rapid innovation we won’t likely see again for years. 

For CX strategies to be successful, agencies first need to acknowledge that a problem exists. They need to communicate to the public a clear understanding of the nature and breadth of the challenges they face. To get ahead of the upcoming ‘tsunami’ of citizen needs, agencies must take action now by listening to citizens and employees, to make the kind of structural change that fundamentally improves public service in both times of calm and times of crisis.  

Jim Messina is chief executive officer of The Messina Group and a political advisor for Medallia.