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Government customer experience could hold the key to citizens’ trust

Putting people first to deliver a seamless government customer experience reinforces citizens’ belief in government’s competence and intent.

Key messages

  • Focus on citizens, not government. Improve government operations by viewing them from the citizens’ (or other customers’) perspective. How best can their needs be met?
  • Find new service delivery models. Focus on user-centricity to uncover new and transformational ways of delivering services that can cut costs, build trust and slash the time tax on citizens and businesses resulting from the friction of interacting with siloed government systems.
  • Transform how agencies operate. Shift operations to adapt to new government service models. These shifts are only possible with sustained investments in terms of time, attention, resources and leadership.
  • Close the budget and technology gaps for cross-agency CX initiatives. Provide new funding authority for CX initiatives, both at high-impact service providers and across agencies, and provide for flexibility—for example, by providing broader interagency transfer authority.

Government is taking its first steps toward transforming customer experience

Leading private companies have found that putting customers at the heart of all their activities can significantly improve overall performance—and this realisation 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 behavioural 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?

The current state of CX in government

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 emphasises improving CX for Americans by focussing 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 institutionalise 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 organisations 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.

CX is a strong predictor of citizens’ trust in government

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 programme. For example, many Americans are so convinced that government programmes 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-centred, 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.

How to improve trust through better CX

Build networks of trust

Government services don’t exist in a vacuum. Government rarely provides every link in the chain of a service or programme independently. More often, government agencies work with vendors, partners and the private industry to provide programmes 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 behaviour.

Demonstrate empathy

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 organisational capabilities to actually deliver services, products and experiences worthy of citizens’ trust. Our research suggests that delivering those services with empathy isvital.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows how this works. Through the VSignals programme, 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” organisation that’s focused on veteran experience and well-being.9 The programme proved especially useful in identifying veterans in crisis. The VA intervened in a total of 691 suicide crises, using AI-based tools that analyse 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 Focussing 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-centred service design, personalisation and cocreation to improve employee engagement.13 Human-centred design can give them a peek into what matters to customers and, therefore, ways to improve the customer experience and public trust.14

CX affects the success of government agencies’ missions

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:

  • Decreased costs: Improving CX represents an opportunity for many agencies to reduce costs. Cocreation and customer testing—often through prototypes or storyboards, for example—help teams more clearly define what’s important to customers. Organisations can then avoid spending money on features and tools their customers will never use, or messaging that misses the mark. Early testing of new features helps organisations understand customer adoption and offer more relevant programmes and services.
  • Increased compliance: When citizens and businesses feel satisfied with the customer experience, their trust in government increases and they’re more likely to comply with rules and procedures.
  • Improved effectiveness: Enhancing the customer experience tends to require agencies to change their workflows, reimagine back-end processes, modernise systems and reimagine how they deliver. This often leads to increased efficiency; the elimination of duplicative processes and systems; and the reuse of existing technologies, platforms and resources that can significantly cut costs in the long term.
  • Better employee engagement: Positive citizen experiences and streamlined operations can lead to more engaged employees who take pride in working for the government.
  • Lowering the time tax: Improved CX can reduce the time tax on citizens and businesses as they spend less time and effort navigating through government services and complying with regulations. For businesses, it also reduces compliance burdens, encourages innovation and enables job creation.

Lessons from life event–based services across the globe

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 centre, 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 co-ordination among agencies and misaligned incentives; inadequate co-ordination 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 licence 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 programme for birth and infant care, demonstrates how focussing 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 prioritise 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 authorise 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 organises 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 customised 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, modernising 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

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How to ensure success

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 co-ordinating across levels of government. Moreover, many government agencies, often operating in silos, are stuck in a traditional programme-centric service delivery model that prioritises agency processes over citizen needs. However, they can accelerate their CX journey by rethinking their approach.

Understand your customers

  • Shift from government-centric to citizen-centric. Tailor government standards and processes around citizen needs, not government silos. This requires conducting ethnographic research, interviewing citizens, facilitating focus group discussions and using behavioural insights tools to listen to the voice of the customer. Use insights from this research to designsolutions that consider customers’ needs. Human-centred design not only promises a better CX, but can also increase programme buy-in, improve processes and efficiencies, and reduce errors and costs in government programmes.
  • Congressional action is required to help reduce restrictions around budget and process that create silos and put in place cross-agency governance structures that give agencies the agility needed to meet changing customer needs without compromising Congress’s oversight.
  • Invest in CX measurement platforms that track an individual’s experience to identify citizen needs and prioritise improvements to the customer journey. Better data drives better design and better design drives citizen satisfaction.23 Co-ordinate within and among agencies to share citizen data and provide seamless services.24

Tie customer experience to a particular mission outcome

  • Directly link mission outcomes to CX. A common misconception about CX is that it’s only about creating “moments of delight” for customers. The fact is that CX can be used to advance mission outcomes. The Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) PreCheck programme allows passengers who pass a background check to speed through airport security lines. Travellers voluntarily provide data, which, when combined with other layers of security, allows TSA to allocate screening resources to higher-risk passengers.25

The real value of CX can be realised 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

  • Improve decision-making by focussing on customer analytics that give insights into customer behaviours, issues, needs and pain points. Better data analytics can guide federal agencies on their CX journey, but few agencies collect and analyse customer data. Only 54% of federal managers surveyed by Deloitte said their agency consistently collects customer feedback data and about the same percentage said they conduct ongoing research about their customers.27 Moreover, only 57% of respondents indicated that customer feedback is analysed and only 46% publicly share customer feedback analysis.28

Create a road map for change

  • Assess the organisation’s current state and maturity with respect to CX. Then define the future state, starting with basic design principles—core statements of what the system and culture will do.
  • Assign a leader who owns all the touchpoints across the customer journey. Based on our research, only 48% of agencies have a dedicated CX office or leader.29 This said, the emergence of a CX leadership role in the public sector is an encouraging sign. Leading agencies are establishing a CX office that co-ordinates CX projects across an agency, prioritises CX initiatives and influences budget decisions that impact citizens directly. Agencies need to adopt new governance and budget structures and designate dedicated funds to allow for better cross-agency collaboration.

Build infrastructure to deliver CX

Personalised 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.

  • Build customer-facing infrastructure. Drive the adoption of digital identity with the intention of providing personalised service delivery. In India, Aadhaar, a unique digital ID, has been used to disburse COVID-19 cash relief of 280 billion rupees (US$3.8 billion) to more than 300 million beneficiaries during the lockdown.30
  • Build technical infrastructure. New technologies can help lay the foundation for new customer experiences. For example, adopting integrated data management systemscan promote the “once-only” principle where customers need to provide information just once to use multiple services. With data-sharing across agencies in place, organisations can redesign service delivery processes to integrate emerging technologies such as AI.Estonia has relied on AI and machine learning technology to profile job candidates and offer recommendations.31
  • Build organisational infrastructure. Technology alone won’t improve CX. Sustained leadership and governance are also required. Creating standing, cross-agency governance structures can help ensure that the focus on CX isn’t lost and that agencies can put the public at the centre of their services well into the future.

Customer experience can help rebuild citizens’ trust in government

Building trust in government is a continuous process. It will require challenging existing orthodoxies in government. Providing seamless and personalised 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.

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  1. The White House, “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government,” December 13, 2021.

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  2. Ibid.

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  3., “High impact service providers (HISPs),” accessed June 13, 2022. 

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  4. Forrester, “The US federal customer experience remains weak and uneven in 2019,” Forbes, December 13, 2019.

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  5. Pew Research Center, “Public trust in government: 1958-2022,” accessed June 15, 2022.

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  6. Jesse Goldhammer et al., Using “trust networks” to address the trust deficit in government: Orchestrating the government trust revival, Deloitte Insights, August 10, 2021.

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  7. Ibid.

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  8. John O’Leary, Angela Welle, and Sushumna Agarwal, Improving trust in state and local government: Insights from data, Deloitte Insights, September 22, 2021.

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  9. Tom Christensen and Per Laegreid, “Trust in government: The relative importance of service satisfaction, political factors, and demography,” Public Performance & Management Review 28, no. 4 (2005): pp. 679–90.

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  10. US Department of Veterans Affairs, “VA Customer Profile and Veterans Signals programs recognized by FedHealthIT,” June 18, 2019; William D. Eggers et al., Rebuilding trust in government, Deloitte Insights, March 9, 2021.

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  11. Sushumna Agarwal et al., Focusing inward: How improving employee engagement can help rebuild trust in government, Deloitte Insights, October 8, 2021.

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  12. Michael Hassett, “The effect of access to training and development opportunities, on rates of work engagement, within the US federal workforce,” Public Personnel Management, June 10, 2022.

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  13. Ibid.

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  14. Agarwal et al., Focusing inward

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  15. Crown Commercial Service, “Case study: G-Cloud cuts cost of DWP’s ‘Tell Us Once’ in half,” August 30, 2017.

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  16. New Zealand Government, Result 10: Customer Research, December 2014, p. 26; New South Wales Government, “Transcript: NZ mapping live journeys and driving collaboration across government,” accessed June 30, 2022.

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  17. See for instance New Zealand Government, “SmartStart: Lessons learned from the first cross-agency life event project,” accessed June 30, 2022.

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  18. Simplex, “Challenges are renewed, so is Simplex,” accessed June 30, 2022.

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  19. The Office of Governor Ned Lamont, “Governor Lamont and Secretary Merrill announce update of Connecticut’s business registration system, making it easier for businesses to interact with state government,” November 23, 2021.

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  20. New South Wales Government, “Record funding for digital infrastructure,” June 18, 2020.

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  21. Kate Harrington and Alan Thorogood, “How to fund transformational digital public services,” Apolitical Group Limited, September 3, 2021; Digital NSW, “Is my project eligible?,” March 21, 2022.

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  22. Randall Smith and Jocelyn Cranefield, “‘Having skin in the game’: A value tension study of an inter-agency IT project.” In Proceedings of the 25th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS), Guimarães, Portugal, June 5–10, 2017, pp. 935–49. 

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  23. Bruce Chew et al., Citizen experience in government takes center stage, Deloitte Insights, June 24, 2019.

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  24. Simon Cooper et al., Seamless service delivery: Personalized, frictionless, and anticipatory, Deloitte Insights, March 4, 2021.

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  25. Transportation Security Administration, “TSA PreCheck.”

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  26. Jason Manstof et al., CX takes center stage: Insights from the US federal government manager survey, Deloitte Insights, November 20, 2020.

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  27. Ibid.

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  28. Ibid.

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  29. Ibid.

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  30. Cooper et al., Seamless service delivery.

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  31. Ibid.

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The author would like to thank Mark BussowJoshua KnightPeter D. BrownHannah SheaKaren L. WalshDavid MaderJaimie BoydPaul FitzGeraldShahira Knight, and Sofi Gonzalez for their time and insights.

The author would also like to thank Bruce ChewJohn O'LearyJoe MarianiTiffany FishmanDavid NooneMahesh KelkarPankaj KishnaniGlynis Rodrigues, and Kannan T from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights for research and critical inputs in drafting this testimony.

Cover Image by: Matthew Lennert

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