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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Thum, Ph.D., CCXP

Inspectors With Influence: How Watchdogs Sway Customer Experience Mindsets in the U.S. Government

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

If you've ever had to wait in line to pay longer than you spent actually shopping in a store, then you know there are few, if any instances, when wait time doesn't factor into your experience as a customer.

That same truth applies to accessing government services. Wait time usually matters. No matter if you’re waiting to be seen by your doctor or on hold to get help with a tax return, when you know how long you’ll have to wait, you can plan accordingly. Not knowing, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on your health, your finances, or your business.

Time can seem like such an unimportant thing when you’re not the one waiting. But when you are, the stress can demolish any hopes of a good experience.

In the U.S. federal government, influential watchdogs know that customers of government hate waiting. And they’re paying attention.

Time can seem unimportant when you’re not the one waiting. But when you are the one waiting, the stress can demolish any hopes of having a good experience.

Who Are These Watchdogs?

They are Inspectors General (IGs), government authorities assigned to prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement inside government agencies. Broadly, they have a responsibility to make government better for citizens and taxpayers. That includes citizens' experiences with their government.

For example, just last week, IGs issued a meaty public report on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) woes with customer wait times in SSA field offices. Last year alone:

  • 4.2 million Americans had the experience of waiting at least one hour for service.

  • More than 2 million people bailed before they even got the chance to be seen.

But last week wasn’t the first time IGs have called out the problems government agencies continue to have with customers' experiences around wait times.

A Few More Examples

In July 2019, SSA IGs called out the agency’s time commitments for processing veterans’ disability claims. SSA’s policy is to process claims “expeditiously,” but SSA never defined if “expeditious” meant veterans should expect to wait 1 day or 300 days. In government customer experience, you need quantifiable service targets to go with public promises. SSA didn’t have any. Veterans never knew how long they would have to wait.

Then, there’s the post office. Who hasn’t had to stand in line and wait at the post office?

IGs at the United States Postal Service (USPS) have been pushing the USPS for years to make retail postal services faster. Reports in September and October 2018 hammered the postal service on long customer wait times. IGs suggested that the USPS use mystery shoppers and customer surveys to fix the problems.

Why IG Influence Matters to Government Customer Experience

The IGs’ work is important to customer experience in government because their reports and recommendations get published on the web. The public nature of the work speaks to accountability.

Agency leaders can review and respond to an IG draft report prior to the report going public. Eventually, they will not be able to ignore or set aside IG recommendations. Typically, agency leaders will need to form internal response teams to take action on the IGs’ recommended improvements. Then, agency leaders have to periodically update IGs on their progress. Sometimes, status updates go public, too.

But, Back to CX!

Customers hate waiting, no matter the time or place. It's just common practice in the field and practice of customer experience to set operational standards and targets for things like customer wait times. This also happens to be a fundamental practice for U.S. federal government agency performance reporting, too.

And it matters for small business owners, patients, veterans, and citizens who need to know how long they should expect to wait for care, a claim reimbursement, or an answer on an application for service. For agencies, it’s vital to building trust with citizens and customers.

IGs can influence the implementation of customer experience practices and procedures. But they can't necessarily influence funding to do so.

Evolving Government Customer Experience

It is notable that customer experience has evolved in the U.S. federal government to the extent that IGs are using their influence to push customer experience practices forward in government.

However, there are some important realities to keep in mind:

  1. Just because IGs recommend that an agency takes on new customer experience practices doesn’t mean they can influence funding to do so.

  2. Attention to faster customer service in one set of IG recommendations doesn’t mean the next report won't contain recommendations that make it harder to provide more timely experiences for citizens.

Still, the IGs’ involvement keeps the customer experience conversation moving forward in tandem with other advancements like OMB Circular A-11 Section 280 on customer experience, the President’s Management Agenda goal on customer experience, the IDEA Act, Connected Government Act, CASES for Constituents, and Taxpayer First Acts. All of these are important pieces of the puzzle in making government better for all citizens.

And then, there’s the Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s influence on government CX. But that’s another blog post.

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