Federal Customer Experience Forecast: More Disparity Between Haves and Have-Nots

A new report from Forrester Research predicts “uneven progress” among federal agencies.

In a new report released this week, Forrester Research predicts federal customer experience will continue to advance next year though it suggests there will “be uneven progress” among federal agencies.

The report is chock-full of data and should qualify as a must-read for customer experience practitioners and stakeholders in government. Researchers Rick Parrish and Jennifer Belissent forecast the customer experience across government in 2016 with deep dives in specific areas including data, mobility and digital government.

Nextgov chatted with Parrish, a senior analyst at Forrester Research and one of its primary authors, about the report and the outlook for federal customer experience in 2016.

Nextgov: What are the main takeaways here?

Parrish: We are going to see a bigger disparity in how agencies view their customers. Some are starting to find their footing on customer experience, and they’re going to keep improving. On the other hand, we’re going to have other agencies lagging behind in either their interest or because they take significant wrong turns.

Nextgov: What’s an example of a “wrong turn” an agency could take?

Parrish: Sometimes, you see a federal agency get too excited about, for example, pushing people toward digital. They forget that digital is only part of an entire omni-channel experience people want and need. That’s one way in which some agencies go wrong – forgetting that you can’t just set up a website and forget the rest of the operation. You do something like that, you might make a lot of noise, but it’s more heat than light.

Nextgov: A portion of the report focuses on mobility and suggests that agencies will continue developing mobile applications “inside-out,” which is a big problem.

Parrish: We’re going to see more of the same with mobility. Agencies today – most of them – have this sort of inside-out, organization-centric approach to mobile app development and engaging with customers through mobile. By and large, you see these applications done not from the customer’s perspective, but from internal mandates. That’s when you get all these federal mobile apps that hardly anybody uses because they don’t actually meet a customer need. Most agencies today measure their success in mobile not in how well their mobile offerings help customers, but by how many mobile apps they produce. They’re not actually helping people accomplish their goals in a better way than they were before. And agencies generally don’t gather the data they need to figure out which apps are successful.

Nextgov: Everybody talks about big data, but your research suggests agencies will go “beyond big data” in 2016. What does that mean?

Parrish: Open data is good, but data that is technically available is not nearly as good as data that is discoverable and easily usable. Agencies have been focused on making data open, that’s a good thing, but people very rapidly realized that you get all kinds of formats by just putting it all online somewhere, and agencies are scrambling to keep up with deadlines to publish stuff. It gets to be a burden.

Nextgov: As you note in the report, 2015 saw a proliferation of open data – 164,000 data sets are published on ata.gov alone – the hiring of a federal chief data science (DJ Patil) and agencies take initial steps implementing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. What does that signal for 2016?

Parrish: That’s indicative of the trend we’re in now. The focus is going to shift from making stuff technically available – “Hey, it’s on the website, go do something with it” – to actually making it discoverable and usable. That’s really important moving forward.

Nextgov: One of the interesting findings is how the Office of Personnel Management breach has impacted digital government. How can we expect the hack to impact customer experience?

Parrish: We are going to see some advances in digital government, but nobody wants to be the next OPM. The danger here is a security danger, and security concerns could slow momentum down. Agencies right now are a lot more cautious about digital than they were a year ago because of the overwhelming security concerns, and that’s going to slow down progress in government. That will also be the case with internal efforts, not just efforts that affect the public.

Nextgov: Improving customer experience across government became a pillar of the Obama administration. How might the presidential election in 2016 impact customer experience?

Parrish: I’d like to see customer experience as a campaign issue frankly, but doing right by the federal customer is good politics for every conceivable next administration. It might look different depending on who gets into office – more insourcing versus more contractors, for example – but happier customers is good politics for any administration.

Nextgov: Any final thoughts?

Parrish: In general, I see this report as, cautiously, a good news story. With the exception of mobility, where it’s going to be more stumbling, things are moving in the right direction. We’ve come a long way. The fact is that Washington has done it right.

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