A Government History Lesson on Customer Engagement

Customer engagement is a buzzword in many industries right now – including government. Yet, what does customer engagement in government actually mean? It’s not like government depends on profits driven by their customers – so why does government have to care at all about customer engagement? Let’s take a look back over the history of government and customer service – and no I’m not going to take us back to the horse and buggy days of visiting town squares. Let’s go back just a little over 20 years ago.

In 1993, President Clinton issued the first executive order related to customer service, instructing all federal agencies to service their customers as well as, or better, than the best customer service organizations in the business world. This included creating customer service standards and monitoring adherence to those standards through customer surveys. President Clinton followed up on his executive order by a memorandum in 1998 to agency leaders asking them to conduct “Conversations with America” to determine what government customers needed and expected from our government. The President directed agency heads, “As your agency learns what Americans care about, use this information to provide service that will equal the best in business and serve as a model for others”.

Fast forward to April 2011 when President Obama went one step further with executive order 13571, requiring all agencies to streamline service delivery and improve customer service. President Obama specifically mentions that customer’s expectations are rising due to advancements in technology and that government must meet and even exceed those expectations. This directive was further explained as “coordinating across service channels (such as online, phone, in-person, and mail services)”.

We end our government history lesson in 2012 with the White House Digital Government Strategy, which states that “all Americans should be able to access information from their Government anywhere, anytime, and on any device…” For most government agencies, this has become the basis for their mobile first strategies. The most recent NASCIO State CIO Survey (2014), was interesting in that it showed an increase in both coordinated and fragmented mobile initiatives from 2013. In the case of several states, mobility has become an integral component of their strategic IT plans. I take that to mean that there are applications being specifically developed for mobile devices, duplicating processes and functionality that have already been built and are currently being maintained in other systems. Some of these applications are being developed in a coordinated fashion, while others are not.

"Have we missed the intent of digital government and the expectations of government’s new generation of customers?"

Have we missed the intent of digital government and the expectations of government’s new generation of customers? Digital government is much more than a mobile-first strategy. Digital government means not having to worry about a mobile-first strategy. Instead, digital government means allowing customers to engage via any channel or multiple channels, and do so seamlessly – using the same process. In government, that still means catering for five generations of customers who will opt for paper transactions, self-service kiosks, standing in lines in the office, call centers, using their mobile devices, and, in the future, their new wearable devices, such as an iWatch, to request services. Who knows what the next digital technology will be that customers want to take advantage of? Digital government means engaging with customers faster and easier, according to their perception of those words, regardless of channel or device.

Devising and implementing a mobile-first strategy will not get government agencies where they need to be in our digital world. Government agencies need to confront their legacy applications and digitize to modernize. Customer engagement in a digital world is all about having the same process available across all channels, allowing the customer full freedom to move from one channel to another, without having to start their transaction over or require special instructions.

This is called omni-channel and it is here now. Omni-channel – first and only – is the strategy that government agencies need to adopt to deliver on their promise of digital government.