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  • Stephanie Thum, CCXP

Improving CX in the U.S. government: Watchdogs again call for specific targets, not vague promises


One of my most admired old bosses, a government agency leader, had a saying.


“’Sometime next week’ is not a deadline! Be specific! What day and time will you have an answer for me?”


The point was: vague promises and timelines aren't acceptable.


Vague Promises of Better Experiences: Not Cool


The U.S. Government Accountability Office made the same point recently with a new report that examined how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) measures its performance toward a publicly stated commitment to improving the experiences of the agency’s customers.


“Top-quality service” and improved taxpayer experiences are part of the agency’s mission. But what does that mean, specifically?



According to the GAO’s report, the IRS needs specificity with quantifiable metrics, around what customer experience improvement looks like. The report suggests the IRS should aim for reduced customer telephone hold times, for example, as a measure of customer experience improvement success. The agency also needs to specify the performance ratings they hope to earn from customers who provide feedback on the agency’s high-volume services.


The point is, without specificity and metrics, how will you know if you have delivered on a promise to improve experiences?


A Familiar Refrain


The GAO’s most recent report on the IRS is not the first time a federal agency has been called out for being too vague in its customer experience improvement promises.


In 2014, GAO issued a report on five agencies, saying each needed to better articulate quantifiable, measurable customer experience improvement targets. Without standards and targets, the report said, agencies cannot effectively communicate to employees or customers what they are aiming for or measure their progress.


“… A fundamental element in an organization’s efforts to manage for results is its ability to set meaningful goals for performance and to measure progress toward those goals.”
U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2014

Then, in 2016, the GAO reported on the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) lack of specificity around a strategic goal to provide customers with “timely” access to care. IHS had not set operational standards for what "timely" meant. Without measurable a customer experience standard in place, IHS could neither manage customer expectations nor claim they had met their timeliness pledge.


Inspectors General Play Here, Too


The GAO isn’t the only watchdog calling for agencies' specificity surrounding customer experience metrics and goals. Inspectors General are at the government CX party, too.


For example, the Social Security Administration has a policy to process veterans’ disability claims “expeditiously.” However, the agency never defined if “expeditious” means veterans should expect to wait 1 day or 300 days. The SSA IG called them on the lack of specificity in July 2019. 


The Key Takeaway


The key takeaway from the continually growing repository of past oversight body reports on customer experience measures and metrics: if you publicly tout plans and promises to improve the experiences of your agency’s customers, then you need to set and state some specific, measurable, quantifiable performance targets. Then, you need to report your progress toward those goals.


It's about accountability and tracking progress toward those public promises that are usually stated in agency strategic plans, which are another public government artifact.


The GAO's recommendations for specificity make sense for the field and practice of customer experience as a discipline, especially in government. Without specific, quantifiable standards, targets, and performance checks, how will you know if you have made progress toward the promise of customer experience improvement?


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