A national digital strategy for transforming government

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It’s time to rethink the focus on customer experience to reimagine government operations from the ground up

The flurry of digital initiatives across federal agencies over the past two years shows what’s possible in government. While the country has long craved efficiency in public-facing government services, the pandemic jolted our government’s continued digital transformation with new urgency. Suddenly, agility and responsiveness became mission-critical; these digital interactions had human impact. They were pathways to food, medical care, business loans or unemployment benefits — means of survival.

Several recent government technology programs show considerable promise. From the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence to the Technology Modernization Fund and the Federal Data Strategy, we are building strong digital muscles. That said, deployment of resources and implementation across programs and agencies remain inconsistent. Because the public experience when interacting with the federal government varies so widely, it impacts not only service delivery, but wholesale perception and trust in government. 

The U.S. government is presented with a vital opportunity: to harness these capabilities and new initiatives, including President Biden’s Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government (CX EO), into a top-down national digital strategy.

Although that effort is no doubt ambitious, the federal government is better positioned than ever to create and implement a national digital strategy. In federal digital transformation efforts, research indicates that expediency — in short, cutting through cumbersome bureaucratic and legislative red tape — matters greatly. A recent Gartner survey predicts that by 2023 “most governments without a total experience strategy will fail to successfully transform government services.” The Biden administration can capitalize on its reserves of data, recent IT modernization investments and related legislation to drive streamlined government and greater engagement.

Here’s what a successful national digital strategy should entail.

Put the customer the American citizen first

The government/citizen dynamic must undergo a paradigm shift to mirror a key aspect of the private sector: The public should be treated as a customer of the whole federal government, as opposed to just one program or agency. The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, signed into law in 2018, requires that government agencies make customer experience a priority by offering modern, consumer-focused IT capabilities, such as mobile-friendly online options for paper-based forms and digital signatures. Many related initiatives are underway across government, but these maintain an agency-by-agency focus in the CX EO. The public should be interacting with a fully integrated digital government, irrespective of the agency or program. 

Champion a virtual government realignment

The next step in the evolution of these efforts should move toward a virtual government realignment to organize services in meaningful, consistent ways for the public. Such a realignment would be made possible by collecting digital capabilities that cross agencies and presenting them to the public in a consolidated way. Although not explicitly stated, this could be an outcome of the redesigned USA.gov website called for in the CX EO. There are other practical advantages: A cross-agency focus on data and systems integration will create new opportunities to promote program participation, ensure program integrity, combat fraud and reduce improper payments.

Work across government to serve the public

When people interact with an agency or program, they often don’t distinguish between organizations or levels of government. To most, it’s just “the government.” Let’s leverage this thinking to design cross-agency workflows and make it simple for people to interact with the public sector.

Some examples already exist. You can apply for a passport at a post office without needing to visit the State Department. There are similar opportunities to cross-service the public, especially in rural America, where 28% of residents lack high-speed internet. The U.S. Postal Service, Social Security Administration and Agriculture Department operate thousands of field offices in these areas and can be a physical hub for government activities. 

The Rural Partners Network is a starting point for linking government services. Run by USDA’s Rural Development, the initiative connects federal agencies in rural America to improve access to resources. Despite potential challenges — such as issues related to privacy, cross-training, and agency roles and responsibilities — the existing physical infrastructure is a gateway to building a technologically enabled 21st-century government, with collaboration at its core. 

This vision for a digital infrastructure creates limitless opportunities for cross-government workflows. Think of a person experiencing poverty and applying for economic assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and unemployment benefits. These programs are likely administered by different state agencies, and the customer experience can vary significantly across programs, let alone states. Inevitably, someone seeking services must complete multiple applications and resubmit similar information each time. 

Why not use the data from one application to automatically start applications for other programs and then have the associated agency follow up with the person if he or she is likely to qualify for benefits? The CX EO focuses on this very customer journey. This can be scaled into a national model for how citizens interact with federal programs to create consistent, consumer-like customer experiences.

Foster data sharing to improve service delivery

If successfully implemented, a virtual realignment would have a beneficial trickle-down impact: to foster data sharing across agencies and all levels of government. This would break down silos, drive mission success and provide opportunity while also lowering the risk of service delays and mitigating the possibility of underwhelming service experiences. Automated workflows across all levels of government would establish consistency in customer experience and enable agencies to be more responsive to citizen needs. In the case of customer service management specifically, a centralized digital platform can drastically reduce employee response times and speed up issue resolution.

Why it matters: Looking ahead

An effective national digital strategy must be dynamic and constantly evolving to meet the needs of government employees and the people they serve. Meaningful digital transformation in government will not be achieved by way of a single project with a specific deadline. Rather, digital transformation is the ongoing effort of improving agility and responsiveness to ensure government can meet the evolving needs of citizens.

The concept of a national digital strategy can ultimately build a model for how citizens in each state interact with federal programs and better align customer experiences across these systems. The CX EO and the Office of Management and Budget’s designation of High-Impact Service Providers kick-started work on customer journeys for many of these programs, and those principles can also be applied to other cross-agency opportunities.

Our government cannot afford to wait until a future crisis to make sweeping changes to its digital infrastructure. As we approach yet another critical juncture, the federal government must redouble and refocus its transformation efforts and work to ensure that its employees and the public can soon benefit from long-needed improvements. 

This article was originally published in the SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2022 issue of FCW magazine.

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