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The Avenue

Want to restore trust in government? Start with customer experience

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Confusing websites and long waits on the phone for accessing public services are eroding Americans’ trust in government. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Last month, President Joe Biden signed an executive order outlining a vision to improve the customer experience of government services. The order directs Cabinet secretaries to make specific services easier to use, modernized, and transparent, such as by reducing the need to submit required documents in person rather than online.

The executive order explicitly states that making government services easier to use is essential for improving equity in access and restoring trust in government. But to succeed, leaders will need to build on what we already know, listen to the people we intend to serve, and focus on impactful, deliberate changes. The executive order will need to facilitate more efficient and user-friendly processes not only for the general public, but also for staff who work within government. Civil servants often struggle to work across multiple disconnected and aging data systems and processes that have been neglected and underfunded for decades.

The frustration many Americans experience in even the most basic interactions with government—like renewing a driver’s license or filing taxes—fractures trust in our institutions, which is already near historic lows. These burdens affect a range of people beyond those receiving social services—from a small-town mayor managing COVID-19 relief funds to a small business owner confused by a government loan application.

The people most in need of support often have the least amount of time and resources to get it. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowery recently dubbed this the “time tax,” which “is worse for individuals who are struggling than for the rich; larger for Black families than for white families; harder on the sick than on the healthy.” This is why improving customer experience in government is critical for achieving fairness and equity.

Consider, for example, a new mother who is trying to apply for food assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC programs often require applicants to physically go to an office to apply. For young mothers, that might mean a lost day of wages, transferring between multiple buses, and tracking down all the documents to prove eligibility. These small burdens add up in time, resources, and mental energy, and they are particularly hard on someone who is already stressed.

Although the principles and vision behind the new executive order are sound, efforts to develop user-centered government services have been relatively limited so far. How leaders put the executive order into practice will be key to timely implementation. Local, state, and federal leaders can build on valuable lessons from organizations already making public programs and services more user-centered, such as Nava PBC (of which one of the authors is co-founder), Code for America, RIPL, and Civilla, as well as government digital teams such as 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Various toolkits and reports are available as resources for policymakers and program administrators.

But critics’ contention that government spending has risen too dramatically amid the COVID-19 response has created a political barrier to authorizing more funding and capacity for improving program administration. Yet neglecting administrative processes and technologies will only increase government spending and security threats in the long run. For example, the government programs that struggled to detect and combat fraud in state unemployment insurance programs led to an estimated $87 billion in improper payments. And relying on support staff to perform repetitive administrative tasks that could be automated takes valuable resources away from working directly with people. The maintenance of aging, duplicative systems also becomes more costly and complex over time.

Beyond having adequate capacity and resources, some program administrators see changes to long-standing processes and routines as a threat or a risk. They also may take on too much change at once or design solutions before fully understanding the problems. Recent books such as “Power to the Public,” “A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide,” and “Administrative Burden” offer case studies and clear insights for guiding the cultural and political change required for building user-centered government services.

Improving customer experience in government will be a challenge, and the wins won’t often be readily visible. Local, state, and federal program administrators should gather direct input from the people who use these programs and services (as well as staff members) to inform improvements and develop measurable goals to track progress.  Making assumptions about what customers need, outsourcing too much, or taking on too much at once are common pitfalls that lead to cost overruns, media scandals, and further distrust in government.

President Biden’s executive order is a necessary call to action for local, state, and federal policymakers and administrators. To give all Americans a fair shot to succeed—and earn back their trust—leaders must build on what we already know, listen to end users, and make focused, impactful changes.

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