You can't fight city hall. But if Congress passes the proposed Federal Agency Customer Experience Act, which cleared the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs last week, you'll have a chance to tell federal agencies how you feel about your interactions with them.
The FACE Act, versions of which passed the Senate in 2017 and the House in 2018, calls for simple voice-of-the-customer surveys of constituents for federal agencies. The bill states that government customer experience lags behind the private sector. To improve service levels and develop a customer-centered mindset, agencies will have to work together to use technology and share standardized data.
Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said through a spokesperson that the bipartisan bill -- cosponsored by Sens. Hassan and James Lankford (R-Okla.) -- will help improve customer service in the federal government by allowing agencies to hear directly from the people they serve.
Legislators had taken up the issue of federal customer service improvement years before the pandemic. But in 2020 and 2021 the pandemic degraded service even further as remote work disrupted workflows. Moreover, at some agencies, contact with constituents skyrocketed as tens of millions of people were unemployed and the government sent multiple stimulus checks to a majority of taxpayers, which drove up contact volume.
The IRS, for example, answered 3% of the 85 million calls to its most frequently used taxpayer hotline during the 2021 tax season, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent division within the IRS that helps taxpayers resolve issues with the agency.
While private-sector contact centers differ in the complexity of calls they handle, a typical goal for that key performance metric is to answer 80% of calls within 20 seconds. The IRS said last April that the average call hold time spiked to 20 minutes for the three in 100 fortunate enough to get through. In late June, the Taxpayer Advocate Service said that 35 million personal and business tax returns were delayed in processing. That was one factor that drove up call volume as taxpayers tried to track refunds.
Sen. Maggie HassanD-N.H.
"Customer service is one of those things that when it's good, you never think about it again, but when it's bad, it can be incredibly frustrating," Hassan said. "The goal of the FACE Act is to ensure that Americans can receive high-quality customer service from their government, get what they need and then never think about that interaction again."
FACE Act enables cross-agency CX efforts
The goals of the FACE Act are not only to measure customer sentiment toward different agencies, but also to standardize CX improvement between agencies so they can learn from each other, said Troy Cribb, director of policy for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports the bill.
The FACE Act also calls for the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to collect reports from each agency on how they fared with constituent feedback, publish the findings annually and make it publicly available on the web.
"This will help build up a community of [CX] practice within the government," Cribb said. "Also, [it will enable] the ability to look across the government and help both Congress and the administration pinpoint common pain points that need a government-wide effort versus more specific issues where you need a more agency-tailored approach to improving customer experience."
One challenge all government survey initiatives must overcome is the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires agencies to complete an extensive OMB approval process before collecting information from 10 or more members of the public. Many agencies can face yearlong delays to get OMB approval for short customer surveys, according to Cribb. The FACE Act proposes standardized CX survey questions as well as alterations to the Paperwork Reduction Act that will enable agencies to move more quickly.
Federal employees motivated
Federal agencies don't have the same motivations to improve customer experience as profit-minded, shareholder-driven private sector companies. But federal employees, year after year, indicate they are motivated by service and are generally sympathetic to their customers, according to the Partnership for Public Service's annual survey that measures federal employee engagement.
Agency leaders, both politically appointed and career employees, might not be motivated by profits, but they are definitely motivated by customer sentiment, Cribb said. Constituents let their senators and representatives know how they feel about particular agencies, and elected officials "have a pretty good idea" of how agencies fare in the court of public opinion, she said.
In theory, then, both congressional officeholders and agency leaders are motivated to improve CX in order to keep their jobs.
Collecting anonymous and voluntary feedback and measuring sentiment will also help determine staffing levels that will provide better service, and will provide data for agency leaders to justify budgets to Congress, according to the FACE Act.
Will it pass and can it help?
The bill still needs to pass the Senate and House, and then be signed by the President to become law. The current rancorous partisan divide on Capitol Hill might appear insurmountable for any proposed law to the average U.S. citizen. Cribb, however, said both Republicans and Democrats have shown enthusiasm for improving federal customer experience, so it has a shot.
"There have been very good, productive conversations between the sponsors -- and the House and the Senate -- and they've been talking closely with the administration," Cribb said. "We think that at this point there's really broad support behind this bill. We're very hopeful that it's going to get to the President's desk this fall."
Voice-of-the-customer surveys are crucial for improving customer experience. But it's what happens afterward that makes all the difference, said Liz Miller, Constellation Research analyst. Companies measure customer sentiment all the time and then don't act on it. The FACE Act has potential to help improve government CX, Miller said, but it's just a first step.
Fixing federal CX will require a lot more than surveys. It will take updates to processes, technologies and -- for some bureaucrats -- attitude.
"This isn't just asking a zebra to change the color of its stripes; this is asking a zebra to be a cheetah," Miller said.
Successful companies like Starbucks, Zappos and Amazon built their success on a customer-obsessed mindset. Starbucks has gone as far as to codify its third-place policy -- a CX principle that aspires to give customers a safe, welcoming gathering place outside of work and home whether they buy something or not. Government agencies, Miller said, may not find the will to go that far.
"Starbucks wants to embrace you in this experience in order to make money. This is not the culture of government," Miller said. "It's not even the culture of traditionally government-run organizations globally, like utilities, where the focus is keeping the gas, electricity and water flowing, or removing the trash. That type of service organization has simply not been focused on customer experience. They've been focused on literally keeping the lights on."
Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.