As any American (or newcomer or visitor to the United States) can attest, contacting the U.S. government can be a daunting, almost intimidating, and too often a frustrating experience.
Inadequate online self-help, limited interaction channels, multiple phone numbers and web sites, excessive form filling and paperwork, having to contact multiple agencies, and finding the right people to talk to (and long hold times) have unfortunately become the public’s customer experience (CX).
And according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Federal Government Report 2020 the trend has generally been downward (see Chart 1).
Such is the scale of the paperwork alone that it has been in excess of 9 billion hours in recent years, reports the White House: which it admits is far too high.
Not surprisingly, in today’s hyperpartisan era, there is variation in satisfaction between the supporters of the different political parties (see Chart 4).
The U.S. government CX issues have become amplified with the COVID-19 pandemic. The necessary closure of federal government offices as a result has meant that many matters that would have been handled in-person now have to be conducted by phone: adding to those already being answered by their contact center agents.
On top of that, changes to help Americans cope with the financial impacts of the pandemic, like stimulus payments, generated calls to the contact centers.
Caught in between are the dedicated and hardworking contact center agents who do their best to help while putting on their smiles when engaging with customers. The public appears to have acknowledged that fact. The ACSI report noted (see Chart 2) that “the professionalism and courtesy of customer service provided by federal services is…now the highest score among the drivers of citizen satisfaction.”
These agents and their families, like those in the private sector, have been facing dangers from the COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to work-from-home (WFH) prompted by it. Fortunately, the federal government has had a longstanding WFH/telework policy and the number of government employees who WFH has climbed. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reported to Congress in December 2021 that 45% of all federal employees teleworked and 90% of those eligible to telework did so in fiscal year (FY) 2020, ending September 30, 2020: a 34% increase in both groups.
The President’s Executive Order
President Joe Biden has decided to act on these longstanding and also pandemic-driven issues. He signed an executive order (EO), “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government” on December 13, 2021, that directs the federal government to bolster its CX.
“When a disaster survivor, single parent, immigrant, small business owner, or veteran waits months for the Government to process benefits to which they are entitled, that lost time is a significant cost not only for that individual, but in the aggregate, for our Nation as a whole,” said President Biden in a statement issuing the EO.
“This lost time operates as a kind of tax—a ‘time tax’—and it imposes a serious burden on our people as they interact with the Government. Improving Government services should also make our Government more efficient and effective overall.”
President’s Biden’s EO, the latest such action by the White House since 1993 aimed at addressing CX issues (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative), commits the U.S. government to making 36 improvements across 17 federal agencies.
It also creates a cross-agency service delivery process that it said, “aligns to the moments that matter most in people’s lives—like turning 65, having a child, or applying for a small business loan.”
The Biden administration said that it will identify and define critical services, assess performance and report it publicly, and incorporate customer feedback during every interaction.
The EO designated 35 High-Impact Service Providers (HISPs) in key federal agencies based on the volume and types of benefits, services, and programs they supply (see Chart 5).
They will be the focus of improving the CX including program modernization, reducing administrative burdens, and piloting new online technologies and tools in order to provide “a simple, seamless, and secure customer experience.”
Among these agencies, not surprisingly, is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which falls under the Treasury Department. The ACSI report ranked the Treasury Department last in key agencies and departments in citizen satisfaction (see Chart 3).
The National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) reported that 86% of taxpayers want a toll-free number to access; the same percentage agreed that the IRS should be improving its phone-based customer service. Also, 81% want the ability to email questions to the agency and 70% want mobile-enabled IRS applications for tax information and assistance.
The EO further mandated that federal government agencies work with Congress, the private sector, non-profit organizations, state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, and other partners to design CXs that reduce administrative burdens and simplify public-facing and internal processes and make them more efficient. But also to “empower the Federal workforce to solve problems.”
“As the United States faces critical challenges, including recovering from a global pandemic, promoting prosperity and economic growth, advancing equity, and tackling the climate crisis, the needs of the people of the United States, informed by, in particular, an understanding of how they experience Government, should drive priorities for service delivery improvements,” said President Biden.
The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative
The Biden administration was not the first to tackle the issue of U.S. government customer service, since morphed to become the customer experience (CX).
Nearly 30 years ago the Clinton administration launched and implemented the National Performance Review (NPR).
The NPR’s goal was, to cite part of the title of the book about it that was written by Vice President Al Gore who led the initiative, to create a government that “Works Better and Costs Less.”
The NPR issued 400 recommendations on ways to achieve those goals, with a call to all government agencies to put their customers first, to empower their frontline employees, cut red tape, and get back to basics, according to independent consultant Laura Sikorski.
The Clinton administration also issued these documents:
- An executive order (EO), “Setting Customer Services Standards”. It called for a customer service “revolution within the Federal Government to change the way it does business.” It mandated “All Executive departments and agencies that provide significant services directly to the public shall…benchmark customer service performance against the best in the business…”
- “Putting Customers First: Standards for Serving the American People”: which reportedly was the first comprehensive set of U.S. government customer service standards ever issued.
- “Putting Customers First: Serving the American Public: Best Practices in Telephone Service.”
Sikorski, along with several other consultants, used these documents and their expertise to develop and implement a customer service telephony solution for the United States Postal Service’s 800-ASK-USPS launch and its integration into 40,000+ local post offices.
According to Kathleen Peterson, PowerHouse Consulting, the NPR produced several significant results:
- Reduced the federal workforce by 426,000 positions, making it the smallest since the Eisenhower administration.
- The initiative cut 640,000 pages of agency rules, introduced the use of credit cards, electronic filing at the IRS, and saved more than $250 million a year.
- Field offices were closed; instead, agencies developed an initiative to work together in better ways.
“The NPR was a game-changer in many respects,” said Peterson. “It was the first time the U.S. government looked to business for organizational and operational expertise; many corporations participated in NPR efforts. And it led to the setting of performance targets at federal agencies for the first time.
“While the NPR program itself petered out it had a legacy withstood future administrations. Some of the changes were inevitable, but it pioneered early adoption of technology and it pushed government to learn some best practices from business.”
In looking back though, Sikorski said “it seems that the agencies went back to ‘business as usual’ despite the hard work and excellent recommendations and best practices provided in the initiatives issued 30 years ago.
“It appears that minimal oversight and the lack of continued execution of the excellent standards that resulted from President Clinton’s EO have required President Biden to issue a new EO.”
What Our Experts Say
To get a handle on this far-reaching EO, Contact Center Pipeline reached out to several leading industry experts.
Founder and Chief Analyst
This EO by President Biden is hugely significant to we as consumers of government services and to our industry.
I’ll start with benefits to the federal government. There is no question that public satisfaction with government service delivery lags far behind private industry.
“There is no question that public satisfaction with government service delivery lags far behind private industry.” ~Dick Bucci
The ACSI measures 10 economic sectors, which together represent a broad swath of the U.S. economy, reports that government and public administration scored a satisfaction index that was last by a large margin of the sectors surveyed (ed. note: the federal government ranked higher than local government.) Implementation of all or many of the specific action items listed in the EO will raise customer satisfaction while at the same time cutting the “time taxes” that President Biden referred to in his statement. An important side benefit will be improved employee morale and job satisfaction.
Benefits to our industry will be profound. When the leader of the free world elevates improving the CX to a federal government priority, everyone pays attention.
Over the decades since the modern contact center was established in the late 1970s our industry has created and refined management practices and technologies that improve customer interaction processes.
At their core, government entities are giant service organizations. Their activities are process driven. Anyone who has waited hours to execute a simple transaction at the local DMV or perhaps applied for a passport has seen firsthand the inefficiency of government.
We can help agencies streamline their processes with both modern technology and management skills. Perhaps the most important contribution our industry can make is through training, which includes helping to foster the customer-centric culture within government agencies.
As an analyst, I want to share with you a few numbers, sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As of May 2020, there were 5,575,070 individuals employed with the title of Customer Service Representative. Of that very large number, 51% were employed by federal, state, or local governments. Further, here is a statement from the technology initiatives arm of the General Services Administration: “The federal government spends over $20 billion a year on contact centers, primarily on outdated technology and processes.”
Contact center vendors and service providers, are you paying attention?
What Can Americans Expect?
Here are several examples of proposed customer experience (CX) improvements outlined by the Biden administration through its new executive order:
- Ability to schedule callbacks from the IRS and access to new online tools and services to help file returns, pay taxes, and receive refunds.
- Streamlined enrollment with the Social Security Administration and improved online tools for retirees, such as for claiming Social Security benefits and receiving application status updates.
- Medicare recipients will receive personalized tools, such as for managing their healthcare and reducing their drug costs. They will also have expanded customer support options.
- Expanded telehealth. Also more automated access for women to obtain their electronic prenatal, birth, and postpartum health records.
- A single digital platform and a mobile application for military service members and veterans, and removal of duplicate and outdated sign-in options on VA.gov.
- Reduced contact center hold times for the Small Business Administration; the agency will measure these experiences.
- New digital tools to help farmers obtain Department of Agriculture loans.
- Allowing secure online renewal of passports and more customer contact channels to get urgent time-sensitive help from the Transportation Security Administration.
- Streamlined and integrated grants application processes for Tribal communities.
- Streamlined disaster assistance, such as allowing survivors to submit supporting documentation like virtual property inspections and damage photos from their smartphones.
- One-stop ability for individuals to update their addresses with the federal government but also with state governments.
- Those wishing to change their names will no longer have to appear at a Social Security Administration office, give wet signatures, and submit original documents.
The Biden administration will also redesign USA.gov as a centralized and upgraded “digital Federal front door.”
This move will enable the public to access all federal government benefits, services, and programs in one to three clicks, taps, or commands from the USA.gov homepage, without navigating duplicate and outdated websites.
The home page will feature, according to the White House, “a new user experience based on the key life events, moments that matter most, and top tasks that Americans experience throughout their lives when interacting with Government.”
Founder and Principal
The Biden administration’s “Executive Order on Transforming the Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government,” reminds us that there is a crisis of sorts when it comes to the issue of trust, not only in government, but throughout society in general.
“There is a crisis of sorts when it comes to the issue of trust.” ~Stephen Loynd
Doubtless, part of the reason for this state of affairs is how quickly things seem to be changing throughout society, with exponential technological change being a primary culprit. In the context of the CX I was immediately reminded of the January 11, 2022, webinar entitled “Close the Trust Gap,” during which Twilio and Deloitte Digital revealed their findings on quantifying the value of trust during the economy’s ongoing shift to digital.
The findings emerged from research conducted during the summer of 2021, when Twilio and Deloitte Digital surveyed 1,000 consumers and 500 leaders of large, business-to-consumer enterprises in the United States with the aim of identifying and quantifying the business value of trust.
What did they discover?
The key takeaway from the webinar is that the ease of doing business with a brand enhances trust (the components of “ease” include quick issue resolution, easy access to live customer support, no bouncing customers from person to person when addressing an issue, and simplicity in finding needed information).
This is an enormously important insight, because the data also suggest that a deep sense of trust makes it significantly more likely that customers will stay loyal to a particular brand.
In the context of government, what insight could be more timely than that?
The White House’s announcement was clear: “By demonstrating that its processes are effective and efficient, in addition to being fair, protective of privacy interests, and transparent, the Federal Government can build public trust.”
It’s a worthy goal. Now all they have to do is execute.
Kathleen M. Peterson
Chief Vision Officer
PowerHouse Consulting, Inc.
When I first read President Biden’s EO on the CX, I thought that a reasonable subtitle could be “Calling All Consultants!”
The order aims to address a massive challenge faced by the federal government: easy, speedy, and effective access to services and benefits.
But as noted in the EO, this is not the first time such an initiative has been undertaken. The Clinton administration launched the National Performance Review (NPR) initiative, which lasted from 1993 to 2000 (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative).
“Those involved in executing...will be well- served to study the processes the NPR used.” ~KATHLEEN M. PETERSON
The NPR came at a time of massive consumer change. Call centers grew like weeds due to improvements in telecommunications technology. The digital world was about to blow up with the emergence of the internet and with it the World Wide Web. The world was poised for enormous change and government had to get on board for the sake of effectiveness and efficiency.
The world we occupy currently is poised for many more changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for government services to be more accessible and responsive to those in need.
The impact of social media, remote work, and many more consumer access channels than ever demand that service providers streamline processes, tools, and procedures to assure the transformation of the “Citizen Experience” to a Customer Experience.
This is based on many of the approaches taken by today’s contact centers. This order should resonate mightily with contact center leaders since many are facing very similar situations.
President Biden’s EO has many similarities to the NPR in its purpose statement to “design and deliver services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.” The specific language may be different, but the similarities are striking. These objectives also align to many contact center operational struggles; the effort looks to drive the design of services based on consumer need.
The stated purpose looks to eliminate organizational and operational barriers, support cross-functional (agency) relationships, and improve technology, digital access, and processes by reducing or eliminating paper (via the Paperwork Reduction Act) and applying the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to provide clearly written policies, procedures, etc.
My personal favorite of the entire document is the identification and acknowledgement that difficulty in accessing services creates, as President Biden says, a “time tax” on the consumer.
The time tax is imposed when customers apply for or secure access to government services. Lengthy delays and confusion may prevent access to benefits for months at a time. This does not build trust.
President Biden’s EO aims to relieve the time tax when accessing services from the government. It is not unlike what contact centers do daily when managing our own “time tax,” namely putting customers on HOLD.
Those involved in executing this ambitious order will be well-served to study the processes the NPR used during its stint to communicate objectives, engage agency personnel, and secure the support of Congress when necessary.
This EO is needed. The public is faced with an enormous amount of bureaucracy and paperwork.
I have one mantra for my clients —“Think Like a Customer” when developing marketing campaigns, website content and tabs, telephone menus, products, and services.
In my opinion, the federal government does not adhere to this. No matter what department or agency you reach out to, there is always a long delay to find an answer to a question.
I spoke with several family members for their opinions:
- “When I call, there are too many press options. I call back two, three times to find the right option to press and then wait for a human to answer.”
- “Sometimes I just press any number to hopefully get a human and ask if they can transfer me. Lately they say no and tell me to call back and press “x” on the menu.”
- “Isn’t this a waste of my tax dollars?”
My advice during the implementation of this EO, all department/agency executives should call the “contact us” telephone numbers listed in their marketing materials and website. Bet they will be surprised!
But the U.S. government—the White House and Congress—will have to budget the resources from our tax dollars. Because if you want to provide outstanding CX, you need to spend money on contact center technology and staff.
Government consumerization of CX is here to stay. The customer expects the same technology services regardless of industry: artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, chat, email, video, front/back-office integration, just to name a few.
For staffing keep in mind your payroll rostered staff needs to include percentages for “lost” time, such as vacation, holidays, sick days, personal days, continuous training, staff meetings, and breaks.
This factor can be as high as 25%. The lost hours percentage needs to be factored back into the total number of staff required to meet performance metrics such as Service Level, Average Speed of Answer, and Abandoned Call Tolerance.
“My questions are these: how were these directives determined? And how were they validated as must-haves?” ~Laura Sikorski
The crux of this EO is in the execution. My questions are these: how were these directives determined? And how were they validated as must-haves?
Here also are “Back to Basics” questions that should be addressed:
- Why were the outcomes of the 1993 EO not sustainable (see box, The Clinton Administration’s Customer Initiative)?
- What does the American public expect from this EO?
The President’s EO also stated that “Within 90 days of this EO and on a regular basis thereafter, governance staff is to select a limited number of customer life experiences to prioritize for Government-wide action to improve customer experience.” But why only a limited number?
The order also said that “Within 180 days of this EO and every 6 months thereafter, a status of actions is required by each agency.” But based on the EO timeline this project could take three to five years, depending on the agency.
I have learned a long time ago projects of this magnitude need to be “bucketized” so that completions can be realized quickly and in a timely manner. If the light at the end of the tunnel is always the oncoming train, this EO will fail.
Fixing the IRS’s Troubled Customer Service
According to the White House, some 240 million individuals and businesses file tax returns every year. And help with those issues drives in millions of calls to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Unfortunately, it is the IRS that is in need of help: for its customer service.
According to the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA)’s 2021 report to Congress, the agency received a record 282 million calls in FY 2021, ending September 30, 2021.
Yet only 11% of calls, or just 32 million, reached contact center agents (which the IRS refers to as customer service representatives or CSRs) in that period.
Problems, Including Prior to Pandemic
The NTA leads the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), an independent organization within the IRS which protects taxpayers’ rights, helps taxpayers resolve IRS problems with the IRS, and recommends changes aimed at preventing them.
The NTA report ascribed much of the blame for the IRS’s customer service woes to the COVID-19 pandemic, with factors including:
- Taxpayers were looking for answers as the IRS took much longer to process returns, thus delaying refunds for millions of taxpayers and causing financial hardships for some of them.
- Enactment of the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021, issuing a third round of stimulus payments and extending a tax-free waiver on the first $10,200 of unemployment earnings that led to call spikes.
- Closure of the in-person Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs).
- Catch-up by the IRS in equipping workers that it had sent home with laptops and providing supporting infrastructure.
But the problems have long been there, exacerbated by years of what it called “subsistence-level budgets.”
The NTA’s 2022 Purple Book, which is published as a separate volume from the Annual Report, pointed out that the IRS budget has been shrunk by nearly 20% after adjusting for inflation since FY 2010. As a result, taxpayers had difficulty reaching CSRs. In FY 2019, the last full year prior to the pandemic, they “were not adequately served well over 40% of the time.”
The 2022 Purple Book also reported that the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) (see Chart 3) and the Forrester U.S. Federal Customer Experience “have consistently ranked the Treasury Department and the IRS the worst or among the worst performing federal agencies from a customer experience perspective.”
Yet when the pandemic hit, and despite what the NTA called the “laudable efforts of the IRS in general and CSRs in particular”, the overall level of service (LOS) for the full FY 2021 dropped to 21% from 51% in FY 2020.
The high call volumes created what the NTA Annual Report called a “vicious cycle” of poor service. That is because the IRS CSRs perform other tasks when available, such as correspondence, processing amended returns, and working paper cases.
“As taxpayer call volume increases, CSRs have less availability for these other tasks,” said the report. “In turn, this diminishes the IRS’s ability to be responsive to taxpayer needs in those areas, which causes processing delays…CSRs are so busy answering the phones that they are unable to deal with the incoming paper inventory, and the result causes even more phone calls as the paperwork stacks up.”
The long delays in reaching IRS CSRs have led to other service-worsening consequences.
The NTA said that some taxpayers and tax practitioners have hired vendors to auto-dial the agency: which further strains its phone lines, and which makes it more difficult for the average taxpayer to obtain service.
“Being able to call the IRS is a free public service that should be available on an equal basis,” said the NTA. “Paying to receive preferential access to the IRS should not be permitted.”
Causes and Solutions
The National Taxpayer Advocate attributes what it called the “historical inadequacy of phone service” to at least two principal causes.
1. Not enough CSRs.
2. CSRs lack a centralized Enterprise Case Management (ECM) system that would give them access to the taxpayer information they need to efficiently answer questions and resolve problems.
The NTA praised the IRS for seeking to make upgrades and innovations in areas impacting its traditional telephone service to provide better customer support for taxpayers, notably moving to a seamless omnichannel strategy.
The IRS’s Taxpayer First Act Report, sent to Congress in 2021, ID’ed tools such as:
- Automated callback
- Wait time transparency
- Concierge navigation support
- 360-degree view of taxpayer accounts
- Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solutions including chatbots, appointment scheduling with IRS personnel, and employee assistants
The NTA report also called for an upgrading of videoconferencing capabilities at the TACs that handle taxpayer interactions that cannot be handled online or over the phone.
It suggested that the IRS move away from virtual service delivery (VSD), a taxpayer-facing technology available at limited TACs or partner sites. While helpful and secure, it nonetheless requires taxpayers to travel to a location other than their homes, thus limiting its utility in bridging the gap in face-to-face TAC service: effects that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead the IRS should comprehensively adopt videoconferencing platforms, such as Teams, WebSD, or Zoom, thereby permitting taxpayers to use their own devices in their own homes. “This would greatly expand taxpayers’ ability to hold videoconferences with TAC employees and get the help they need,” said the report.
The NTA has a goal of an 85% LOS. To help achieve that objective and see other improvements happen it made several preliminary administrative recommendations for the IRS and a legislative recommendation for Congress.
For the IRS:
1. Implement and increase callback technology capacity across all taxpayer-facing telephone lines.
2. Prioritize the rollout of a comprehensive ECM system.
3. Implement flexible hiring and training strategies for CSRs to reach and maintain a mininum 85% telephone LOS.
4. Engage with outside parties to conduct a study to identify private industry or government best practices and how they might improve IRS phone systems.
5. Conduct a post-mortem study to identify specific challenges faced during the last two filing seasons to improve the responsiveness and quality of information provided to taxpayers and practitioners by telephone.
6. Conduct a pilot program for pop-up mobile TACs, with stakeholders and community partners, to travel to underserved communities and reach vulnerable taxpayers, to determine the viability and benefit of this program to taxpayers.
Provide dedicated multiyear funding sufficient to allow the IRS to improve the CX in general and telephone service, as described in the IRS Taxpayer First Act Report to Congress.
“[The] TAS applauds IRS efforts to provide systems and procedures that allow taxpayers to obtain the answers they desire without needing to speak with CSRs,” said the report in the Comments section. “This reduction in demand can, in turn, allow the IRS to focus on providing more timely and effective service to those taxpayers who do require assistance from CSRs.
“Key to this necessary improvement will be continued increases to CSR staffing, the planned expansion of customer callback to virtually all IRS phone lines, and technologies such as voicebots, chatbots, and videoconferencing platforms.
“For phone service to reach a level that adequately serves taxpayers, the IRS will need to stay the course and successfully implement these comprehensive plans it has developed and set in motion.
“Likewise, although funding is neither the cause of nor solution to all that ails IRS phone service, sufficient funding from Congress would prove invaluable in allowing the IRS to more quickly and comprehensively make the upgrades it has planned.”