Note to the Feds: You Can't Buy CX Out of a Box

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Ever notice how discussions of government customer experience (CX) improvement tend to get hijacked by debates about technology procurement? Neither did most feds I've mentioned it to lately. One senior official's response was typical but especially eloquent when he said "Huh, yeah. That's weird. Why do we always do that?!"
Customer Strategy

Ever notice how discussions of government customer experience (CX) improvement tend to get hijacked by debates about technology procurement? Neither did most feds I've mentioned it to lately. One senior official's response was typical but especially eloquent when he said "Huh, yeah. That's weird. Why do we always do that?!"

The problem, of course, is that CX improvement is about an awful lot more than technology procurement, but federal agencies often think they can buy great CX right out of a box. The discussion surrounding the failure and rehabilitation of healthcare.gov is typical - it's all about web designers and systems integrators. There's scant evidence of efforts to perform fundamental CX tasks like customer journey or CX ecosystem mapping, or to apply the six CX disciplines systematically.

Maybe that's why healthcare.gov scored the lowest of any organization we rated in our new Customer Experience Index. Even the smoothest-running website in the world isn't going to be a great experience if it isn't the product of a mature CX process.

That's why recent legislation designed to improve federal technology procurement is going to fall short on the CX front, a message I conveyed in my contribution to a report by Chip Gliedman about the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (everyone just calls it FITARA). FITARA--which still has to pass the Senate and receive the President's signature--is designed to streamline tech procurement and governance, but it doesn't change the way Washington thinks about technology. Simply put, FITARA fails to update federal tech management concepts with the outside-in, CX perspective necessary in the age of the customer. Even if FITARA works exactly as intended, it will still leave federal agencies mired in yesterday's tech management concepts--the very concepts that the best private sector companies are leaving behind as they evolve for the age of the customer.

Furthermore, FITARA does nothing to break down the cultural disconnect between the senior federal tech management officials who are often stuck in traditional IT thinking and their working-level subordinates who are eager to embrace customer-centric ideas. This disconnect will be a source of increasing frustration for all federal tech workers, especially the junior talent that Washington is trying so desperately to attract and retain.

More recently proposed legislation has the same problems. The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act (RFPIT Act), proposed on July 30 with bipartisan support, would make positive changes to federal technology procurement and governance, but its most significant contribution to federal CX efforts could be its codification of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. This program--which is already working on digital government initiatives--could be an important incubator for more robust CX improvement efforts, if the RFPIT Act mandated it.

But something else happened recently that might signal the start of a paradigm shift in discussions of federal CX improvement: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal. Bob McDonald was recently confirmed as new VA Secretary and tasked with reforming the department's systemic CX failures.

And the discussion of the VA's CX failures wasn't dominated by debates about technology procurement! Instead, most of the talk during McDonald's confirmation hearings--and most of the media commentary, too--has been about VA's culture, not its technology. VA certainly has its share of technology problems, like outdated scheduling systems, but those most closely involved with overhauling the department's CX seem to understand that cultural transformation is a prerequisite for CX improvement. Even the fanciest new scheduling software won't do any good if the people using it to lie about or cancel the appointments that customers request.

So maybe we are entering a new era, in which discussions of federal CX improvement don't always focus entirely on technology procurement. Maybe VA's problems have carved out a bigger place for discussions of transforming CX culture and governance, too. Maybe.

Good luck, Secretary McDonald!

About the Author:

Rick Parrish is a government customer experience analyst at Forrester Research

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