Helping production agencies deliver

Headquarters of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va.

Headquarters of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. Eli Wilson/Getty Images

COMMENTARY | Customer-facing agencies need a new script to resolve backlogs, measure effectiveness and harness emerging technologies.

The debt ceiling crisis has been averted. Partisan wrangling continues, however, on the size of government and the scope of government services. The debate over the appropriate number of federal employees is ongoing. In other words, business as usual in Washington. We have seen this script many times. When an agency encounters a backlog in claims, calls for more employees ring out. The challenge for government today is to create a new script and enter a new era in the delivery of government services.

The existing script is seen most clearly in what we have labeled “production” agencies. 

Production agencies are characterized by three distinguishing features: delivering their required output, getting their metrics right for measuring success and a focus on customers. Production agencies include the Veterans Benefits Administration, the IRS, the United States Patent and Trade Office and the Office of Federal Student Financial Aid.

It is possible to break down the operations of production agencies into three key steps. 

First, citizens apply for a specific service  —such as a loan, a benefit, or a grant. This is generally done on mandated forms which can be submitted electronically. 

Second, the agency examines the information provided by the citizen to determine if it has what is necessary to make a decision. Agencies collect, organize and analyze the information provided, which is combined with other information the agency either already has or must obtain from other sources. 

Third, the agency determines what, if any, service will be provided in response to the request. The citizen is then informed, usually with a letter containing an explanation of the decision. 

Periodically, production agencies face increased demand for their services, which they cannot support with their current resources. At the IRS, this results in delays in refunds. At VBA, it results in a backlog of claims. When citizen expectation for the speed of service from production agencies is not met, negative media stories and congressional hearings often follow.

Most production agencies respond to these challenges by proposing to hire more employees. While additional staff will ultimately resolve delays, it is not an immediate “fix” due to lengthy hiring times and subsequent lengthy training time for new employees. 

The challenge for government is to write a new script for production agencies. The most immediate question is whether new technologies can be deployed to streamline and speed up the three key steps discussed above. Each of the three steps are logical candidates for new approaches to automate routine work and enable humans to focus on key judgements and decisions not appropriate for technology. 

State-of-the-art technological improvements need to be implemented to address VBA’s current process problems. VBA, as well as other production agencies, can no longer default to hiring more “arms and legs” to complete work the old way. The new script will need to have two components:  people and  technology. 

The people component has two crucial parts. First, the VBA must dramatically change its workforce’s skill set — from manually performing the three processes discussed earlier to managing technology — and contractors — to automate these processes. Second, VBA will need a new managerial corps to manage this new workforce. As discussed in a previous article, we recommended VBA create such a corps to manage a future workforce of in-house civil servants, remote civil servants, in-house contractors and remote contractors. The change in skill set will result in a smaller workforce. A new streamlined hiring process will be necessary to find highly skilled IT workers to both manage in-house IT and to oversee IT contractors. The new VBA workforce will need an expanded corps of acquisition professionals skilled in IT acquisition. These changes will benefit citizens seeking timely services from production agencies. 

The federal government is not the only sector facing technology challenges. Every organization should be looking for technology to save money, maximize workforce potential and improve customer experience. Specifically, VBA should be using state-of-the-art software for more effective resource allocation within their organization and for processing claims. VBA, like many production agencies, is operating many outdated legacy systems. 

The private and non-profit sectors are now using many technologies which can also be used by government — including artificial intelligence, machine learning and customer relationship management systems. The question is how government can increase the use of these technologies to better serve their customers. Production agencies, such as VBA, must redefine their primary tasks — and the skill set of their employees — from implementing technologies themselves to acquiring it and overseeing implementation and operations. 

Each of the three main processes performed by production agencies — receiving applications, assembling needed information and comparing completed applications to criteria for award — can be done by technology. To increase the use of these technologies, we propose Project Expedite. This initiative would be staffed by a dedicated, focused group working on this challenge with urgency. Their task would be to find out what works in the private and non-profit sectors and identify the quickest path for VBA to adopt new technologies. When this is done, the savings from new technologies will far exceed its costs and customer satisfaction will exceed anything previously attained.

Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson and are co-authors of "Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience." Lawrence is the former undersecretary for benefits at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc.

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