United States Capitol Building
PHOTO: Elijah Mears on Unsplash

Slow, inaccurate customer service is an embarrassing hallmark of government CX. Phone calls result in extremely long queue times and dropped calls; email communications similarly fall into a black hole; websites are confusing and hard to search.

These problems are nothing new, and the federal government is looking to step up its efforts. In December 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order designed to strengthen the “direct lines of feedback and mechanisms for engaging the American people in the design and improvement of Federal Government programs, processes and services.

“The Federal Government must design and deliver services in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate. We must use technology to modernize Government and implement services that are simple to use, accessible, equitable, protective, transparent and responsive.”

Below are a couple of common problems with government CX and one success story — though the success is with local government, not a federal agency.

Related Article: Government Updates Focus for Customer Experience Improvements

IRS Delays Add to Negative CX

With people about to start filing their tax returns for 2021, the Internal Revenue Service is top of mind. The IRS will get more attention from filers/customers in the next couple of months, and not in a good way, due in no small part to poor CX.

Treasury Department officials in January said that the Internal Revenue Service will face “enormous challenges” during this year’s tax filing season, warning of delays to refunds and other taxpayer services, meaning the agency may well answer fewer than the 9% of calls it answered in 2021, according to Greg Hanover, CEO of Liveops

“The IRS website says that as of Dec. 23, 2021, it still had 6 million unprocessed individual returns, and as of the start of this month it still had more than 2 million unprocessed amended tax returns, a separate category,” said Hanover.

The IRS and other government agencies need the ability to scale their workforce when demand rises. IRS work, Hanover said, is extremely seasonal. “A scalable workforce provides more bandwidth for personalized, empathetic care — when more representatives are available to take calls during busy times, the quality of citizen service increases.”

Related Article: What CX Professionals Can Teach the Federal Government — And Vice Versa

Lack of Centralized Search Solution

“According to the government analytics site, there are hundreds of thousands of people navigating more than 5,700 executive branch websites at any single time,” said Hamish Ogilvy, CEO of Search.io. In the last 90 days, there have been more than 5 billion visits.”

The decentralized nature of government websites and different search solutions make federated search difficult, Ogilvy added. Topics such as COVID-19, housing and labor are spread out across hundreds of sites, and a better search function is necessary to help people find what they’re seeking. Right now, each government agency designs its site and search solutions, with different metadata standards.

“Many sites use the US government’s own search.gov solution — a product built for government sites. While this solution offers many basic search features and it’s free for federal agencies to use, it lacks even some very basic search features such as dynamic filters and relevance/ranking controls,” Ogilvy said. 

Some other CX issues with search results include:

  • There’s no advanced search option on most sites. With the complexity and scale of topics, an advanced search option could help users narrow results by filtering out unwanted criteria.
  • There is a lack of deep learning and natural language processing (NLP). AI search is now standard on corporate sites. It learns which content is important, automatically optimizing search rankings and delivering more relevant results, even for complex or long-tail queries.
  • There are inconsistencies in cross-language search. While a search for “trabajo” on the Department of Labor’s site returned results, the same search on the Department of Commerce site came up empty. Given the wide range of demographics in the US, it would make sense to offer cross-language search capabilities.

Single Communication Platform Aids Santa Monica

Santa Monica, Calif., leaders saw a single communications platform as a key to delivering an improved resident experience and more responsive municipal services, according to Joseph Cevetello, the city’s CIO. 

“We began this work pre-pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated the need to provide our constituents with a more robust virtual customer experience,” Cevetello said. “We worked with technology partners to create a new platform for citizens, and, in 2020, launched a new web portal and mobile app for 311 services. In the last quarter of 2021, the City of Santa Monica App received 7,636 requests, and is completing, on average, 150 cases every day and over 850 per week.”

The app provides a one-stop-shop for residents to remain updated on city events, and enables them to search for information and request support through the same simple interface. 

In addition to typical service requests — fixing potholes, for instance — the app connects constituents to housing programs and services through the human services division. Within the first month of launch, the app processed 19 requests for rent control and 45 requests aimed at the consumer protection division.

Is Full-Scale Improvement Coming?

“U.S. government agencies are immersed in the worldwide trend to improve their digital IQ and the customer experience (CX),” said Brian Koma, Vice President of Public Sector for Experience Management at Verint. “Several trends are setting in motion the need to improve CX in the public sector. Reliance on government websites and content continues to expand.

“Since physical offices have been shut down and staffs reduced, page views of government websites increased from 38 billion in 2019 to 60 billion in 2020 according to Data.gov,” Koma added. Additionally, leading global brands are meeting consumers where they want, when they want, causing citizens to expect this same level of service from government agencies.

Will the federal government be able to overcome its CX reputation with a new, scalable approach? Only time will tell.