The federal government collects plenty of data on those who use its services, but in many cases agencies still struggle to understand those customers and their needs, a new report found.
Because customer service data are often incomplete, wrong or outdated, or there are budgetary or other challenges preventing agencies from acting on it, agencies’ perception of their users can be skewed, leading to missed service opportunities, the Partnership for Public Service found in its new report, “Government for the People.”
Whereas most respondents — described as agency leaders — to the partnership’s study believe they have “the right information to fully understand the needs of [their] customers,” the users of agency services feel differently. Only 45 percent feel agency representatives understand their needs, compared to 66 percent of private-sector customers, according to a 2015 Forrester Research, Inc. report cited in the partnership’s study.
Many agencies rely on annual surveys for their insight into the minds of customers. This, however, creates the opportunity for both incomplete and outdated information, the report found. It suggests instead seeking “real-time customer feedback on specific transactions or services. These transaction-level data on an agency’s most important services often lead to better insights, according to interviewees.”
But even when agencies have the right data, the report found, they can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.
“If anything, it’s too much information,” Mandy Cohen, chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told PPS. “The challenge is making sure we get the right information and not the noise.”
Likewise, the data becomes buried in organizational or cross-agency silos that prevent the streamlined and efficient sharing of customer information.
“Agencies struggle to connect customer data across organizations and service-delivery channels to create a comprehensive customer view, our research found,” the study says.
Kim Baldwin Sparks, deputy associate commissioner for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Electronic Services and Technology, told PPS that her agency’s field offices don’t have information about customers’ recent interactions online or via telephone.
“[O]ur systems are not built in a way to give us those data,” Baldwin Sparks said. “I really don’t know what the customer’s experience was. I can tell you individual experiences but not holistically.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs similarly has more than 200 databases that don’t communicate with each other, according to Tom Allin, chief veterans experience officer. When veterans move from one VA hospital to another, they consequently have to start from square one, he said.
“Legacy IT systems and privacy concerns are common barriers for agencies trying to share data across organizational boundaries and create a comprehensive view of their customers,” the report states.
Limited budgets, of course, play into this, the partnership found, saying that “federal programs need to maximize limited resources if they are to improve the experience for their customers.” Agencies can be creative, using things like legal flexibilities and “workarounds,” like application programming interfaces — computer scripts that pull and integrate different data sets together.
But more importantly, the partnership found that many agencies are leaving budget money on the table by not using the customer data as evidence during investment negotiations. SSA, the report explains, is one of the few that do, and the data helped it get more funding for call centers. Otherwise, though, “[c]ustomer data are not driving budget decisions,” according to Dennis Alvord, executive director of BusinessUSA, a Commerce Department Web platform that aggregates federal resources for businesses.
“In so many cases across government we have a lot of data saying the customer experience is terrible,” Alvord said. “No one is investing to fix it. It’s just patently ignored.”
The partnership recommends the federal government place a greater emphasis on customer feedback, not only to direct funding opportunities in creating the budget, but also to share across organizations and governmentwide to target where improvements are needed the most.
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