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New GAO Report: Customer Experience Takeaways for Federal Government Agencies Beyond the IRS

Updated: Apr 29




The title of last week’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report might fool you:


IRS Successfully Implemented Tax Law Changes but Needs to Improve Services for Taxpayers with Limited-English Proficiency.


Sure, the 81-page report covers those things in the context of the IRS and its performance last year. But it goes deeper than that. It includes takeaways on the business discipline of customer experience that other agencies may want to fold into their operational practices and mindsets.


Here are three things that rose to the surface for me.


1. Calls for improved customer experiences aren’t going away.


Customer experience mandates, executive orders, and directives can easily fall victim to the age-old “let’s-wait-and-see-what-the-next-administration-wants-before-we- do-anything” mentality, which means work is slow to proceed or never gets started at all.


But last week’s GAO report re-highlights every major customer-oriented executive order, memo, and mandate since President Clinton’s 1993 EO on government customer service standards—about a dozen of them—twice (pages 31 and 70)—as support for its customer-oriented recommendations to the IRS now.


The message is clear. The focus on improving customer experience in the U.S. federal government is here to stay.


2. Employee experience and feedback link to mission success.


The GAO report points toward employee training as a major force behind whether taxpayers file their taxes correctly or not. But think about employee training from the taxpayer’s perspective.

With the power of effective training, well-trained employees can help to clear away confusion and friction for citizens/taxpayers who have questions about complex tax laws. Paying taxes is painful enough. Well-trained employees can help to minimize confusion and mistakes that cost customers time and money. That lesson could also be applied broadly across government.

Still, training must be effective and timely. And you can’t know whether that’s on point unless you ask employees. Hence, the call in the GAO’s report for more relevant employee feedback. It’s especially important, the GAO says, because of the IRS’ new obligations under the Taxpayer First Act.


3. Operational data tells a story of customers’ experiences during a government shutdown.


While the GAO report stops short of explicitly calling out the link between the 2019 government shutdown and the citizen/taxpayer experience, operational data in the report certainly tells that story and a story of how government agencies have to balance the realities of being a government organization with the expectations of citizens, customers, and taxpayers.

The shutdown meant employee training on a major new tax law went on hold. It also meant calls from citizens and taxpayers couldn’t be answered for weeks. When the IRS restarted operations, employees hadn’t yet received the training they needed to counsel callers, and call hold times averaged 21 minutes compared to 8 minutes the year prior. Thirty-six percent of calls were abandoned, compared to 31 percent the year prior.

Why the GAO recommendations and reports matter.


GAO is an agency that works to improve the performance of the federal government. Broadly, it has a responsibility to make the government better. It performs audits, tracks agency practices, and then formulates recommendations for improvement. Then, their reports usually get published on the web. Because their work is public, there’s accountability, as well. Agencies can’t ignore the recommendations.


Their influence and involvement keep the customer experience conversation moving forward in tandem with other advancements like the recently revised OMB Circular A-11 Section 280 on customer experience, the President’s Management Agenda goal on customer experience, the IDEA Act, Connected Government Act, and the recently signed CASES for Constituents and Taxpayer First Acts.


All of these are important pieces of the puzzle, worthy of review and consideration, as agencies make their plans and set goals for improving services to citizens.


Further reading: Frank Konkel's article in NextGov.


Follow me on Twitter: @stephaniethum. Or on Instagram @sthumcx.

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