The Biden administration has pledged to prioritize issues of equity, and for good reason. If the mission of government is to serve all people, we have some ways to go. The last year has surfaced significant disparities, especially for underserved, disenfranchised groups:
In the coming months, federal agencies will be asked to look anew at whether and to what extent they are serving everyone. The push to raise the bar comes at a challenging time. Agencies already are hard-pressed to manage the daily work of government in the midst of multiple crises, health and economic.
The good news is that an often overlooked and underestimated practice, excellent customer experience, is key to improving equity. Placing the end-user—the human recipient of government services—at the center of government efforts will help Americans understand, qualify for, and access services they need.
Why Customer Experience Matters
We’ve all had a bad customer experience. Distracting websites and confusing call center options. The traditional long lines for walk-in assistance where unclear instructions often increase wait times.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen how an increasing number of organizations are able to provide more seamless services when they use customer experience as a guide for digital transformation. Government agencies have used a personalized approach to meet people where they are, on their channels of choice. In turn, their customers have been able to navigate websites, access information, and gain eligibility more quickly and easily.
We can use the same principles to take a close look at what prevents groups from getting the government services and benefits they need. Do complex policies, processes, and rules frustrate or confuse? Do people miss out on services when they make mistakes filling out forms, fail to comply with program requirements—or because they do not have access to laptops? Are people struggling to trust a program that, in the past, has been difficult to access and engage in?
The customer experience lens keeps government proactive, anticipating challenges and building the trust that is needed to make government services truly transformative for the people it serves.
The Need for Speed
The imperative to reduce friction and move quickly has never been more apparent. While COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequity challenge, at the same time we’ve seen that digital transformation has made it possible for agencies to move fast to address access and eligibility issues.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services enhanced the Federally Facilitated Exchange with Enhanced Directed Enrollment. The transition to the cloud has helped the agency scale services enabling it to handle an increase in demand as millions of Americans moved to the Marketplace for coverage due to COVID-19.
The Department of Agriculture also responded quickly to the pandemic by helping food producers sustain losses, manage oversupply, and adjust to prices from supply chain and industry disruption. In May 2020, FSA rapidly implemented the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) virtual Contact Center, leveraging county offices to field an average of 177 calls per day.
In New York City, the Human Resources Administration launched ACCESS HRA in just under a few weeks, transforming in-person public assistance to digital for the first time. The agency was able to meet a 53 percent jump in demand in March (from the previous year). It saw more than 350,000 benefit submissions from March to May (2020) and 80,000 SNAP applications in April alone.
COVID-19 has created proof points that the ability to respond to disruption and make change meaningful hinges on tying customer experience to digital transformation. Agencies not only meet people where they are right now, online and in the mobile space, but they also can scale in near real-time to meet new needs.
What comes next?
Government can be more inclusive, even in a time of urgency and tumultuous change. How can agencies make creative use of emerging technologies to support better, faster, and more objective decision-making?
- Bring the data together: Agencies have a unique opportunity to use data to engage customers like never before. Continuously learning about what customers need and how to best personalize services, especially for disenfranchised groups, is an effective way to drive value. Data and analytics, drawn from core management tools and processes, illuminate how customer needs evolve, as well as how customers like to engage with government. Central to good analytics is establishing a common big data platform, identifying pilot projects, and then using insights to identify where to scale.
- Block out bias: Agencies need to build data strategies to surface inequities and measure the parity of program impact across different customer groups. To prevent the intrusion of underlying bias into AI, agencies use a myriad of techniques, including developing a robust understanding of baseline metrics and where bias may already exist, and ensuring that a diverse group of people reviews datasets before they are fed into algorithms and used to make decisions. By establishing appropriate governance structures and resources, agencies routinely monitor and adjust AI as they scale—and they are better equipped to transparently share how data is being used.
- Design around people: Agencies must take a human-centric approach to digital transformation. This means basing designs in the preferences and behaviors of everyone, designing services across many channels, setting success metrics rooted in customer feedback, regularly soliciting that feedback across a diverse group of people, and iterating accordingly so that no one gets left behind. This will ensure that agencies continue to adapt at scale.
In government, customer experience should be the driver and a key metric of success. Agencies exist for the sake of supporting customer needs or public goods—whether this means access to housing, health care or business financing. Government succeeds when all customers have equal access to services, when those services address the varying needs of different people, and when government is able to meet us all where we are so everyone understands the services they have the right to claim.
Equity will always be a work in progress. But government shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rather, agencies can capitalize on investments made to date, and seize the momentum of this moment to build better government processes that provide service to all.
Elaine Beeman is senior managing director and civilian lead for Accenture Federal Services.