How, and Why, Governments Must Act on Customer Experience
Is it time for government employees to start thinking of constituents as customers? Should they begin to consider actions in terms of what the private sector refers to as customer experience? And what will this look like for government services?
“Technology has progressed so much that residents have higher expectations of access to information, the type of information, the frequency of communication, customer service,” says community consultant Kim Newcomer of Slate Communications. “And frankly, local government has struggled to respond.”
Because governments operate on a different model than commercial entities, they face some unique challenges when it comes to improving the customer experience:
Lack of overall strategy. Many public service leaders cite a lack of vision when attempting to create a modern digital experience for their constituents. It can be difficult to make the business case in an environment where every dollar spent is scrutinized and when new elected officials can be voted in any given year.
Lack of resources and support. It’s no secret that government is expected to do more with less, whether due to austerity measures or pressure from the public. Because of this, it is often hard to garner the resources needed – be they human or technical.
Interoperability. The public sector often relies on a complex web of disparate applications and hardware. These systems have organically grown over time based on available resources and political whim. That makes cost-efficient integration a challenge.
Best Practices: Know Your Customer
To ensure your time and budget is well-spent in this kind of environment, it’s important to know which services your constituents consider to be the most important. For instance, which is the highest priority for users of your online services and communications systems? Paying taxes, getting licenses, registration and permits, or maybe paying fines and tickets? Or perhaps it’s reaching key officials when a project comes to a halt?
To determine that, identify the needs of the people who’ll use the services and how they’ll fit into their lives, recommends the U.S. Digital Service, a White House office charged with helping governments improve public sector digital services.
Also, make your solutions simple and intuitive. Customers should be able to succeed the first time, unaided, without stress or confusion. The way to do this, most user experience experts say, is to put actual customers at the center of the design and development process.
Finally, measure how well the technology works in real time, as citizens interact with the system under real-world conditions.
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Best Practices: Development
The U.S. Digital Service has developed a playbook of 13 best practices drawn from the private sector. Here are its recommendations for building effective online services and the best customer experience possible.
Use open source, cloud-based and commodity solutions across the technology stack. The infrastructure must be able to scale based on real-time user demand using APIs with applications hosted on commodity hardware. This is where unified communications (UC) really helps manage costs and resources. Because of UC’s scalability, you only use what you need. And you don’t have to continually invest in hardware and proprietary software.
In addition, the U.S. Digital Service recommends avoiding data centers that “market themselves as ‘cloud hosting’ but require [you] to manage and maintain hardware directly. This outdated practice wastes time, weakens [your] disaster recovery plans, and results in significantly higher costs.”
Make sure third-party contracts include language that ensures a “research and prototyping phase, refining product requirements as the service is built, evaluating open source alternatives, ensuring frequent delivery milestones and allows the flexibility to purchase cloud computing resources.” To simplify the process, work closely with contracting officers who understand how to evaluate third-party technical competency.
Maintaining security and privacy. One of the biggest challenges facing government is maintaining the security of sensitive information. The U.S. Digital Service recommends that in the initial design phase, governments work with internal privacy, security and legal officers to review the types of information that will be collected, how it should be secured, how long it will be kept and how it may be used and shared.
The Bottom Line
How efficiently you communicate can significantly impact the level of trust citizens place in your work. With more trust comes better community engagement and more effective government.
Here’s a real-life example. When Orion Township in Eastern Michigan was faced with a legacy phone system that stopped accepting voicemail, officials were forced to reevaluate their overall communications technology. A popular vacation spot on Lake Orion, the township couldn’t afford to lose communications with visitors and citizens.
By switching to a cloud-based UC system, Orion Township’s employees are now accessible via a VoIP business phone system, mobile apps, messaging and video to resolve problems, whether they’re at their desk or on the lake. “With employees’ increased responsiveness and efficiency, projects now move quicker and constituents are better served,” says Township Supervisor Chris Barnett.
The end result has been a better customer experience and a savings of at least 10 percent compared to the previous system. That extra money? It can now be spent on community projects that have been waiting for available funds.