Leading private companies have found that putting customers at the heart of all their activities can significantly improve overall performance—and this realization is beginning to take root in government as well. Government leaders are making customer (or citizen) experience (CX) a core function, encouraged by the potential for improvement across three areas: customer satisfaction, efficiency, and mission effectiveness. Advances in digital technologies, a new understanding of behavioral insights, and new management tools are also helping governments worldwide pursue CX more rigorously.
Despite these efforts, there’s still a significant gap between how customers rate their experiences with the private sector versus government. This has significant ramifications when it comes to the level of trust citizens place in government agencies and services—and, as noted above, on those agencies’ ability to fulfill their mission. What can government do to close that gap?
Customer experience isn’t a new concept for governments around the world. For example, as far back as 1993, the White House issued executive orders and memos to improve the customer service of federal agencies. Most recently, the Biden administration issued an executive order in December 2021 that emphasizes improving CX for Americans by focusing on their life experiences to build trust in government.1 The order also calls for dedicated, multidisciplinary design and development teams to support the priority services of 35 high-impact service providers.2 These services include providing food benefits to women, infants, and children; filing trademark applications; accessing retirement and health benefit resources; and applying for federal student aid.3
As a follow-up to this executive order, the president’s management council identified five life experiences to begin with: approaching retirement, recovering from a disaster, navigating the transition to civilian life following military service, supporting birth and early childhood for low-income women and their children, and facing a financial shock. Today, these five life events require the public to interact with multiple agencies, but cross-agency teams are undertaking user research, understanding users’ pain points, and devising action plans to improve the customer experience for each event.
This executive order follows a series of initiatives over the past two decades, all aiming not only to increase government’s focus on CX, but also to institutionalize it in government operations. Agencies have been directed to gather citizens’ feedback, measure customer experience, establish service standards, and measure performance against these standards. They’re also required to develop customer service plans to streamline services and improve CX.
Yet, for all the improvements these efforts have yielded, government CX continues to lag behind the private sector. Citizens, long used to a seamless, frictionless experience in the private sector, expect the same from government agencies. But according to Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, the federal average is nearly 11 percentage points behind the private sector average and lower than any other industry or sector surveyed.4
Moreover, there’s a mismatch between government’s view of CX and constituents’ views. In a Deloitte survey of more than 150 US government leaders from 25 federal agencies, 70% of federal managers indicated that their agencies deliver a customer experience “equal in quality” to private sector expectations. Yet citizens rank the federal government far behind other industries (see figure 1). Apparently, federal managers are enacting the letter of executive and Congressional leadership’s directives on CX but may be missing its spirit. Federal managers often view CX as a compliance task rather than as a fundamental shift to seeing the customer at the heart of government services. This could lead managers to overestimate the quality of their CX: “We are in compliance, so we must be good.” We need to acknowledge this optimism bias within government to make truly meaningful strides toward CX.
Our research also suggests that budget constraints and outdated technology are some of the largest barriers to improving CX within the government (see figure 2). However, cultural issues are an often-overlooked factor. Culture and changing mindsets play an important role in moving organizations beyond incrementally improving customer service to transforming the customer experience.
The underlying issue is that too often, government CX efforts are driven by government, for government. “Complying with federal mandates” was an extremely or very important motivation to implement CX for 81% of leaders, while just 53% said their agency consistently collects feedback on CX from constituents (see figure 3). This creates a troubling picture and is likely the root of government agencies’ overconfidence in their CX: Managers consider CX efforts successful if they yield compliance, and they don’t have enough input from customers to be persuaded otherwise.
Getting customer experience right matters. CX is ultimately a perception of how government delivers services—how it accomplishes its mission. Without accurate and timely feedback about that experience, government may spend more money and achieve less effective results. Conversely, improving CX can not only improve customer satisfaction, but also increase efficiency and enhance mission effectiveness.
The gap between citizens’ and the government’s perceptions of the quality of government’s customer experience can also be connected to a much broader trend of declining trust in government—a trend that has been playing out for decades with relatively few exceptions.5
This is reflected in the way citizens perceive a government service or program. For example, many Americans are so convinced that government programs or services are substandard and inefficient that they misidentify high-quality government services as private or just rate them as lower quality.6 This “crisis of trust” affects almost all aspects of government work today.
Trust in government is essential. It impacts public participation and engagement, compliance, customer satisfaction, recruitment, and more.
Among the many factors that influence trust in government, higher-profile phenomena such as media coverage and political divides stand out. But our research shows that trust is fundamentally related to citizens’ beliefs about government’s competence and intent. This is strongly shaped by our individual interactions with government and what our peers tell us about theirs. Each competent, human-centered, integrity-driven interaction contributes to increased trust. Customer experience, then, goes a long way in either reinforcing or undermining our belief in the competence and intent of government, thereby driving trust.
Citizens tend to trust proximate government more than distant government. By design, digital services make distant services more proximate. Because digital is now a first point of interaction for government, a positive online experience and secure and user-friendly services are critical to enhancing overall trust.7 A Deloitte survey on rebuilding trust in government, for example, revealed an interesting link between satisfaction with online services and trust in government.8 Americans who said they were pleased with their state government’s digital services also tended to rate the state highly on measures of overall trust (figure 4). Those unhappy with digital services scored government much lower on trust. Dissatisfaction essentially wiped out any inherent loyalty to government institutions.
The primacy of digital also helps illuminate the infrastructure that government needs to improve CX. For instance, government services are concerned with real, physical human beings, but if the interaction with them takes place online, traditional forms of identity such as passports and social security cards won’t work. Citizens need a form of identity that can work seamlessly across both physical and digital worlds. A physical-digital identity can improve CX and efficiency and reduce fraud.
Build networks of trust
Government services don’t exist in a vacuum. Government rarely provides every link in the chain of a service or program independently. More often, government agencies work with vendors, partners, and the private industry to provide programs and services.
But if government services are to be trusted, every link in that chain of services needs to live up to the same trustworthy standards. A failure, data breach, or error by one player will reduce the experience and trust of users in government more broadly. Even citizens’ perceptions of one government agency can influence their trust in another. We’ve seen this play out when citizens’ perceptions formed through their experiences at passport and driver-related services get transferred to broader government services, thereby impacting their level of trust in government. This means that government must coordinate “networks of trust,” working to ensure that entire ecosystems adhere to common standards of trustworthy behavior.
Trust in government results from repeated successful interactions between constituents and a government agency. These citizen interactions are micro “moments of truth” for governments, and each of these interactions and the corresponding experience has a wider impact on trust.
Government needs to work both to improve citizens’ perceptions of its trustworthiness and increase organizational capabilities to actually deliver services, products, and experiences worthy of citizens’ trust. Our research suggests thatdelivering those services with empathyisvital.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows how this works. Through the VSignals program, the VA collected feedback from veterans and dependents on service attributes linked to trust signals, including transparency, empathy, effectiveness, and ease of use. The resulting insights were then used to improve its CX, helping the VA evolve into an “empathetic” organization that’s focused on veteran experience and well-being.9 The program proved especially useful in identifying veterans in crisis. The VA intervened in a total of 691 suicide crises, using AI-based tools that analyze comments in real time and route concerns to local VA offices and crisis hotlines.10
Increase employee engagement
Employees are often the face of government for citizens. Our research suggests a link between customer experience and federal employee engagement. More engaged workers tend to work better and provide better services to citizens, improving CX and thereby increasing public trust.11 Focusing on employee life cycle events such as recruitment, performance management, retention, and employee experience can help governments evolve a highly engaged public workforce. Aligning employee skills with the agency’s mission can also make a huge impact on employee engagement and public trust.
Access to training and development opportunities is also positively correlated with federal employee engagement.12 Agencies should provide employees the right training and tools to improve CX, including customer segmentation, journey mapping, human-centered service design, personalization, and cocreation to improve employee engagement.13 Human-centered design can give them a peek into what matters to customers and, therefore, ways to improve the customer experience and public trust.14
An agency’s ability to achieve its mission is linked to its ability to deliver an effective customer experience to citizens and businesses. Some benefits of improving the citizen and business experience for federal agencies include:
Whether registering a birth or death or founding a business, people don’t care how many agencies are involved. They do care, however, how many forms they need to fill out and how many times they need to provide the same information to multiple government agencies. They just want the birth registered, the death recorded, or their new business launched.
Life event–based service delivery is an important trend in government CX that places the citizen at the center, bringing together the delivery of multiple services related to a single life event. Service delivery sometimes begins without the need for the citizen to be involved.
But to implement life event–based services, government agencies need to overcome six major barriers: a lack of coordination among agencies and misaligned incentives; inadequate coordination across levels of government; siloed technology and data systems; siloed funding; privacy and data security concerns; and citizens’ lack of trust.
A marriage, for instance, can involve not just a marriage license but a change of address, a new legal name, and changing eligibility for government benefits such as health insurance subsidies. The number of required transactions can be daunting—and the need to provide the same information again and again can be frustrating.
Such an experience is twice as cruel if the life event is painful, such as a disabling injury, a job loss, a natural disaster, or death. UK citizens coping with the death of a loved one used to have to notify multiple departments up to 44 times about the death. Not anymore. In a single interaction, the UK’s Tell Us Once process triggers notifications to all the relevant government agencies.15
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s SmartStart, an interagency program for birth and infant care, demonstrates how focusing on user-centricity can improve CX. User insights were gathered using a multidisciplinary team that engaged with stakeholders throughout the project’s life cycle through surveys, interviews, and workshops.16 Lessons learned included the need to begin with user testing to uncover pain points, to prioritize features that customers want, creating a minimum viable product (MVP) to test and use the MVP even before the road map is final, and to be agile and iterate quickly.17
During the height of the pandemic in Portugal, every time someone was reported as having COVID-19, the country’s health ministry would contact its social security ministry to issue a “temporary leave permit” to authorize the individual’s absence from work.18 Companies would just submit those names to get a refund on payroll taxes.
In the United States, the state of Connecticut’s “one-stop shop” portal organizes information and services for events related to owning and running a business, such as starting a new business, managing a business, paying taxes, or relocating or expanding a business. For example, the portal generates a customized checklist to guide business owners through the process of setting up a new business entity.19
In Australia, the government of New South Wales announced a AUS$1.6 billion investment in its Digital Restart Fund in June 2020—plus an additional AUS$500 million a year later20—to accelerate a “whole of government” digital transformation: funding digital assets used by multiple agencies, modernizing legacy systems, and building workforce capability by upskilling NSW government employees.21
Funding mechanisms for shared responsibilities have to provide appropriate incentives, yet maintain flexibility because to overworked government managers, a whole of government approach can feel like an added responsibility. As one government executive put it, “We’re going to be measured on our own performance, and not on cross-agency performance.”22
Establishing consistent CX standards and collaborating across government agencies and services can present many challenges, including overcoming siloed data and technology systems, addressing data privacy and security concerns, aligning incentives, and coordinating across levels of government. Moreover, many government agencies, often operating in silos, are stuck in a traditional program-centric service delivery model that prioritizes agency processes over citizen needs. However, they can accelerate their CX journey by rethinking their approach.
The real value of CX can be realized when the federal government uses it as a strategic lever to drive meaningful change. However, while 58% of federal managers indicate that their agency incorporates CX in decision-making, only 51% say their agency’s overall strategy has a CX component.26
Personalized and frictionless services require strong data-sharing mechanisms. Truly seamless services are often built on a digital platform and unique digital identities that enable a 360-degree view of consumers.
Building trust in government is a continuous process. It will require challenging existing orthodoxies in government. Providing seamless and personalized service delivery through proactive models such as life events is an essential step in this direction. While shifting from a government-centric to a citizen-centric lens isn’t always easy, the federal government’s ability to rebuild trust among citizens depends on it.
Deloitte Customer Experience Consulting Services help organizations understand and capture the value of effective customer experiences to gain competitive advantage and differentiate themselves from competitors.