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Citizen DX: Government customer experience starts with data

Properly managing and delivering citizen data should be the U.S. government's first CX priority.

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

By Luke Fretwell · October 30, 2023

I’m in the throes of supporting a family member with their federal government benefits. The experience has opened my eyes widely to the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the U.S. digital service and customer experience movements.

While much of the energy and resourcing has been around recruitment, hiring and making it easier for digital service teams to procure and deliver government services, the focus must now turn emphatically to data governance and interoperability. Without this, the pace of digital public service innovation will continue to be “bureaucracy,” no matter how much you try to hack it.

The CX and digital service efforts are commendable. How the federal government is beginning to deliver digital services has changed drastically over the past decade, and the top-down Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government shows there’s the requisite senior-level cultural understanding needed to facilitate true bureaucratic change.

Unfortunately, these efforts also deeply expose the silos of the federal bureaucracy, the lack of a strong collaboration ecosystem, and get at the core of why so many citizens are frustrated with the government experience.

Today, much of our experience with government services – or anything really – entails our data. If you’ve completed government forms, you know there are many similar fields that are needed across all services – name, date of birth, birthplace, Social Security number to cite just a few. Yet, we’re asked to complete these same fields over and over.

While this may seem like a minor inconvenience, these inconveniences add up. And when you’re completing multiple, extensive forms, these quickly add up. But the inconvenience isn’t the only concern. It’s also the uniformity of the data.

In my recent experience, I’ve customer experienced Social Security, Medicare and the Internal Revenue Service, three key services managed by the U.S. government.

One particular data field is the “representative,” where you designate people to act on your behalf. Each agency has asked for this, and each agency has a different process (and data fields) for managing how to get one designated. While a citizen may have representatives for each service, I imagine, in most cases, there is a uniform primary respresentative. Having the ability to designate a primary representative doesn’t save just minutes on a form, but also the effort to track down the requisite information when it varies (such as a physical address).

So, minutes turn into hours.

Now imagine having to re-designate a representative (and knowing where all this needs to be done).

For example, we scheduled a phone meeting with the local SSA office (in Virginia). When they called, the the SSA employee told me we could add representative payees online, which we did.

I had another relative (my cousin), whom I added as a payee, help with updating the benefits. Because she was hung up on multiple times in the SSA phone tree, she decided to go to the physical local office near her (in Alabama). When her number was finally called, the SSA employee told her there were no representatives in “the system.” My cousin then called me, and the three of us talked via speakerphone. I explained to the employee that was “the system,” and that’s where they’re all designated. After talking with her manager for a while, she came back and said the Virginia local office does it differently than the Alabama one, and lets people do that online.

Their system was different.

She then offered to schedule another appointment for us (with Virginia), which she was confident she’d be able to do, as she had done with other offices. Ultimately, she couldn’t do it, because the system was different.

“The system” is different because there’s no emphasis on data governance.

Pages and pages (or PDFs) of paperwork and hours of navigating the system can be simplified into a single form, on a single web page into a single system. Some will say I’m oversimplifying this, but that’s the role of service design and human centered government (and leadership).

The most important line in the above-referenced customer experience executive order is this:

improve the efficiency and effectiveness of data sharing and support processes among agencies and with State and local governments

There are other mentions of data interoperability and uniformity in the executive order, but governance is treated as secondary and without any holistic leadership or mandate.

This from the executive order is somewhat encouraging, but still fails to get to the heart of the matter:

Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Administrator of General Services shall submit to the Director of OMB a roadmap for the development of prioritized common services and standards (such as the United States Web Design System or systems for login and identity management), platforms (such as notification capabilities), and digital products (such as that support increased efficiency, integration, and improved service delivery of designated customer life experiences.

The front end experience is important to service delivery and customer experience, however, the back end will ultimately drive its success. It’s encouraging that the executive order addressed this to some degree, but it’s time we addressed citizen data (governance and privacy) comprehensively and uniformly. Holistic citzen data governance is the most important digital issue of the moment.

Data governance is the core of the government customer experience.

We need a U.S. chief data officer to lead the narrative. We need the Chief Data Officers Council to prioritize education and awareness and leadership to execute this in a meaningful way. We need agency chief data officers to work with to build profile data schematics that unify citizen data. We need to have the ability and authority to expand profile accounts for citizen information, so that we only have to do the same thing once.

We need a standard for citizen data. We need it to be interoperable and, like Blue Button, we need it to be portable (idea: Red-White-Blue Button).

Upon her appointment, General Services Administration Administer Robin Carnahan famously said, “make the damn websites work.”

It’s now time to make the damn data work.

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Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder and maintainer of GovFresh. More from Luke.

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