Unpacking The President’s Executive Order on Customer Experience

The Government exists to serve the public, period. And yet, it often feels like federal and state services are working against us, rather than for us.

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The Government exists to serve the public, period.

And yet, it often feels like federal and state services are working against us, rather than for us. The tax filing system is a labyrinth. Disability benefits are a fragmented mess. Healthcare, while a cutting-edge vertical, is mired by outmoded administrative technology. The list goes on.

These are not insignificant services, either. American citizens interact with the government multiple times per year, making substantial changes to their lives. A small business owner might request a loan to save their company. A single parent may renew their driving license so they can continue to drop their kid off at school. These experiences matter. That's why, in December 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.

The order's goal was simple: "To promote fiscal stewardship by improving the Government's service delivery to its customers, the American people."

Simple or not, the challenge is significant. Never before has the adage Actions speak louder than words meant so much. So let's take a closer look at the order and the Biden-Harris Administration's plans for customer experience transformation.

What does the executive order include?

We live in a world of effortless customer experience (CX). You can order a taxi to your front door with a couple of taps on your phone. You can turn on lamps and lights with voice commands. And you can video call family on the other side of the world without a second thought. The private sector has set an incredibly high standard for CX and the Biden-Harris Administration has resolved to meet.

Although the order has a single goal, its execution covers two parts:

  • Customer experience improvement commitments
  • Sustained cross-government delivery processes

The former includes 36 CX improvement commitments across 17 federal agencies. For example, the order claims retirees will be able to claim benefits online and receive updates on their applications. Americans will be able to renew their passports online and enjoy shorter security lines at airports, too. Small business owners will be able to submit finance applications via the SBA website. And patients will have increased ability to use telehealth with their doctors.

But the order also recognizes that these functions rarely exist in isolation. When citizens experience important milestones or "priority life events, there are a lot of things they have to do all at once. For example, when someone retires, they may need to work with the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare, and other agencies. That's where the second element of execution (sustained cross-government delivery processes) comes in.

The Biden-Harris Administration has committed to "identify and define critical services that meet customers' needs and expectations, assess performance delivery and report it publicly, incorporate customer feedback during each interaction, and ultimately ensure services deliver a better experience to the public."

What impact will the executive order have?

Only a few months have passed since President Biden's signing of the executive order. Tangible results are still months, if not years, away. But CX experts are already interrogating the order's content, searching for predictors of success or failure.

For example, Stephanie Thum, former vice president of customer experience at Export-Import Bank and founder of consultancy Practical CX, told Nextgov the order could represent an inflection point for the discipline. Before, government administrators treated CX as an "unglamorous battle," she said. But the order contains a clear message from the top: CX matters.

Elsewhere, Annelies Goger, an economic geographer at the Brookings Institution highlighted a different challenge: trust. Frustrating CX "fractures trust in our institutions, which is already near historic lows," she wrote. To improve services, agencies need the cooperation of their users, the American people. If we give more information to the IRS, do we trust that they are going to use that information to help tailor our interaction? The evidence suggests not.

The resolution of that challenge may dictate the success of the executive order. If trust continues to languish at all-time lows, it's hard to see how agencies will deliver concrete improvements. But if the government can re-earn public trust and engage citizens in the improvement process, they can achieve great things: smoother, more efficient public services, faster, bolder development, and greater access to services for all Americans.

As Bill Donellan, Vice President, Public Sector, Adobe put it in a recent report, "the pandemic accelerated the government's need to provide digital services and increase accessibility. It's now imperative for agencies to reach people regardless of where they live, their technological capabilities, or their financial resources."

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