How Government Can Deliver Business-Quality Services

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Here are three actionable key steps that public sector technology leaders can take to catalyze digital transformation.

Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that expectations of service delivery to citizens, residents or temporary visitors by federal agencies are converging with those of customer interactions in private industry. Meaning, speed, efficiency, and a focus for value addition are becoming non-negotiable. 

Take the recent inability of state unemployment offices to process benefit applications in the midst of the pandemic. It prompted a number of questions, and rightly so.

  • “Why isn’t the entire process digital yet?” 
  • “Don’t employers already file most of the information necessary to auto-recommend or even pre-approve people for unemployment benefits?” 
  • “And, while we’re on the topic, doesn’t the IRS already have a baseline understanding of what most people earn, to at least simplify the tax return process?”

Meeting private sector-level expectations in the public sector is a big charge when you consider legislation, politics (no pun intended), technology constraints, resource constraints, and more. But that shouldn’t stop government technology leaders in the long-term. For those looking to start chipping away at change, below are three actionable key steps that public sector technology leaders can take to catalyze digital transformation.

Prioritize Important Problems by Asking Simple Questions

While a number of agencies invest in collecting "customer" satisfaction data, it can feel difficult to prioritize what the first steps ought to be when making changes in the public sector takes so much energy. It sounds basic, but asking some of these simple questions may help:

  • “Do our interactions make sense for the customer?”
  • “Are we taking up the customer’s time in an efficient way?”
  • “Are we leaving an opportunity on the table to add value?”

A good example of an agency that did this is the Agriculture Department. If you visit farmers.gov, you’ll see the experience is very much tailored to farmers’ needs, with services like a simple, clean, and streamlined experience for managing their profile and data, discovery tools for loans, and more.

Lean on Peers to Identify Opportunities

While bureaucracy creates silos, it doesn’t mean you ought to follow them in your professional network. Speaking with peers across different agencies and initiatives can be a useful step to identifying opportunities for change.

Many, like former USDA Service Delivery Chief Sheridan, are part of the growing community of innovators in the federal space and have already learned a few useful lessons around things like navigating data-sharing requirements, winning approval for non-traditional initiatives, and making the most out of the information at their disposal already. 

“Not everybody has to burn their hand the same way on the same stove,” Sheridan says, on the latest episode of my podcast on fostering innovation in the public sector, Network Disrupted. For example, you’ll find in some cases that constraints around data sharing won’t apply to your specific scenario. It’s what allowed the USDA, Department of Immigration, and Department of Labor to partner with one another on the H-2A Visa program (mind you, not without roadblocks, lawyers, and a lot of determination). 

Prevent Technology from Getting in the Way

Remember that IT can directly and indirectly impact customers’ experience with your agency. Everything from your network management and security, to arcane product portfolio management philosophy can create far-reaching issues. Think: latency, security risk, inefficient resource allocation, and even innovation ceilings.

While—or better yet, before—evaluating the future of your front-of-house initiatives, look to ensure your underlying technology and IT practices can enable it. Look to reduce complexity, consolidate technology that was shortsightedly siloed, modernize systems that actually need it. 

Most importantly, if you haven’t yet, begin thinking about your IT department as responsible for a continuously improving product portfolio, instead of steady-state projects. That will naturally mean you also need to get more comfortable experimenting with new solutions, obtaining buy-in for that experimentation, calculating risks, and learning as fast as possible.

The government sector was built as a robust system for a reason, but a need for agility and adding value in service delivery (without compromising reliability, of course) will distinguish successful technology leaders in the coming decade. Do the work now to identify the intersection between the most impactful problems to solve for the “customer,” lean on peers to identify opportunities for creating change, and remember that up-leveling underlying technology is just as important.

Andrew Wertkin is chief strategy officer at BlueCat, and host of the Network Disrupted podcast for IT leaders. 

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