With eight months under her belt as the first chief customer officer of the General Services Administration, Phaedra Chrousos intends to continue championing the voice of the customer as she embarks as the newly appointed associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies and 18F.
A successful entrepreneur several times over before becoming a public servant, Chrousos believes the federal government has a great opportunity to improve on its customer service by taking cues from the private sector. And simply put, she said, “that just means listening to our customers more.”
“I really just want to create an organization that’s responsive to customer needs,” Chrousos told FedScoop. “I want us to quickly react — as agencies’ needs change, I want us to offer shared services that change.”
After co-founding the Daily Secret, a global digital media brand, and HealthLeap, a company that assisted in the booking of health checkups and was acquired by Vitals.com, Chrousos was interviewing to take the reigns of a nonprofit last year when she first met Dan Tangherlini, GSA’s now-outgoing administrator. Candidly, she said she knew little about GSA’s innovative role in the federal government, but Tangherlini pitched her to come aboard as the agency’s first CCO.
The administrator described GSA as the “chief operating officer of the federal government,” Chrousos said, something that appealed to her, given her prior role as COO of the Daily Secret.
“It was fascinating to understand that this underpinned all of the efficiency and operations of the government, and how much potential that was there to impact and scale,” she said. It was that potential that drew her to GSA and continues to draw others to federal government, especially to new digital services groups like GSA’s 18F and the Digital Service within the Office of Management and Budget.
Chrousos calls the movement of private technologists to government “tech corps.” And at GSA, she found, there’s a big opportunity to spread that change throughout government.
“I saw this as a two-year opportunity to come in and change things, give a positive impact somewhere that I thought was at the center of government and could help scale those ideas,” she said. “Money is a driver for some, but I think mission is a really big driver for others.”
Equating it to building a startup, Chrousos said, “you have to be kind of crazy about what you’re doing.”
As GSA’s CCO she’s already improved the agency’s understanding of its customers.
“People weren’t making data-driven decisions about the customer on a daily basis,” Chrousos said. “They had ad-hoc data points or they had anecdotal evidence and they were kind of making business decisions around that. So just getting the information to the right people at the right time was huge.”
Her newly formed office, which works closely with the administrator, immediately embarked on several big projects, like the consolidation of call centers for the tenants of the GSA’s 9,000 federal buildings into one phone number.
“Our team basically became a voice-of-the-customer team where we were just unearthing existing data and creating new data points and better understanding the customer and getting that into the people who were making decisions,” she said.
After piloting the chief customer office for several months, Chrousos said there was an organic fit between her work there and OCSIT, which led to her appointment to take over those offices in January. Already, she’s looking for ways those offices can do better by their customers.
“One of my big priorities for the year is to fill out [OCSIT’s] portfolio of products and services around citizen experience,” she said.
Likewise, 18F will play a greater role going forward, Chrousos said, putting it on the same level as OCSIT in importance despite its short existence. The two, both under her leadership, will collaborate more, especially as 18F grows. Right now, they’re working together on Connect.gov and they also partnered on a recent $100 million cloud services deal.
Within the next 12 months or so, the digital services shop hopes to hire another 130 people, and it will play a key part in the hiring of the technologists who will run the new digital service teams being launched around government.
Despite her ambitious goals to reinvent GSA’s customer service, Chrousos is limiting her time at GSA to two years, mentioning the timeline frequently when talking about her plans. And that means she has to plunge headlong into her associate administrator role to make the biggest impact in the short time.
“I’ve got two years here. And I really do believe in the tech corps mentality,” she said. “I’m not building an empire, I’m not staying in government, I’m not trying to build a political career. I’m just trying to do something good and then go back to my life. So I feel every day like there’s a timeline to this.”
That said, she’s surprised by how much she’s enjoying her work so far.
“I thought this would be hard but important,” she said, but it turns out the work so far has been “hard but important but fun.”