The long tail of modernization

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Why CX is an ongoing journey and not a destination.

Anyone who has been stuck in traffic at an intersection designed decades ago knows the impact of government failing to keep up with citizen needs. In the 1950s, America’s new superhighways transformed life. But today we regularly see drivers frustrated by chokepoints, demonstrating what happens when we fail to adequately maintain and enhance investments for the long term. 

The same is true for digital service infrastructures built for citizen-government interaction. With society continually changing due to world events, new legislation, or groundbreaking technology, government must keep pace with citizens’ evolving expectations for digital services that match their private sector experience. 

Evidenced by the Biden Administration's executive order on customer experience and service delivery, the federal government recognizes the need for good design and customer experience in delivering digital services. Most modern government development projects do incorporate best practices such as user research, focus groups, human-centered design and rapid prototyping to ensure that services aren’t just delivering an outcome, but doing so in a way that considers the user’s experience. That’s half the battle.

A marathon, not a sprint

However, CX in government is a continuous journey involving  ongoing interactions with citizens. It requires constant adaptation and improvement to build and maintain trust, ensure satisfaction and foster a positive relationship between the government and the people it serves. 

As CX development activities come to an end, it is not uncommon for best user feedback practices to be set aside after modernization activity matures into operational and maintenance services. Too often, once the system is up and running, government managers divert their attention to other targets, assuming that the hard work is done, and what was built will continue meeting customer needs. 

By prioritizing long-term success measures and investing in continuous improvement, governments can better serve the needs of the public and ensure the sustained success of their initiatives.

There is a two-fold problem with this approach: 1) any seasoned project manager knows that the best-laid plans always require course corrections once they face the real world; and 2) customer needs are constantly evolving, meaning the goalposts for success never stay in the same place. 

Instead, government program managers need to stay abreast of evolving customer needs and preferences to continually improve the citizen products and services they deliver over time.

Continuous improvement doesn’t have to be a heavy lift.  Small changes can add up to a big impact on metrics like user engagement and satisfaction rates. Tracking these metrics provides insights into the value of government initiatives long after the excitement and fanfare of the launch is past.

Yet too many projects neglect to invest in ongoing research, overlooking crucial aspects like follow-up user testing and continuous monitoring. This can end up contradicting policies governing federal CX initiatives and preventing  project feature validation.

For instance, consider an agency modernizing a legacy system accessed by a highly diverse group of organizations. The agency invests months of time and energy conducting extensive user research among multiple groups of both internal and external stakeholders — depth interviews, persona development, journey maps, ideation workshops, prototype testing, user acceptance testing and defining key performance indicators. This thorough effort is undertaken to design a new system that would be undeniably responsive to user needs. But then the agency fails to implement formal measurement of the user experience, system performance, or progress against goals because they did not budget time or funding for follow-up research. They can only assume success based on positive incidental feedback and a reduction in help desk requests. The actual results of this significant investment are consequently unknown. 

Raising the bar

Traditional project-oriented success metrics such as task completion rates and response times are important to keep capability delivery on track. But they can’t replace long-term success measures — the ones that are needed to make the most impact by driving user adoption and satisfaction over time. Without these long-term metrics, government will continue struggling to understand how the public regards its services. Agencies will lack the ability to make the enhancements and tweaks that could mean the difference between service users becoming promoters or detractors. 

The primary challenge in implementing continuous CX improvement lies in resource allocation; it requires being treated  as such. We’re all familiar with the adage that trust takes years to build but only a second to lose. By prioritizing long-term success measures and investing in continuous improvement, governments can better serve the needs of the public and ensure the sustained success of their initiatives.