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Slow but steady improvement: The state of customer experience in the public sector

By Ann Bachrach on September 12, 2016

Filed under Federal Government

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most people dislike dealing with their cable and internet providers. However, there’s another organization that people interact with frequently that scores even lower in customer experience than companies like your local cable company: the federal government.Customer Service Rep

Forrester Research recently published a US report¹ that measured “how successfully a company delivers customer experiences that create and sustain loyalty” across 319 brands in 21 industries, and the lowest scoring “industry” was the US federal government.  This feat reflects the current lackluster state of public sector customer experience.

Todd Bergeson, Sr. Product Market Manager

US federal government agencies also have the greatest range of scores than any other industry; the National Park Service actually has a higher score than any brand from 8 of the 21 different industries (not including the government sector). This variance indicates low-scoring US federal government agencies have an opportunity to not only draw from best practices from other high-scoring industries, but also from other agencies in the federal government, to improve customer experiences.

To shed more light on Forrester’s findings in relation to US federal government agencies, we met with public sector expert Todd Bergeson. We were surprised at what we learned.


Todd, Forrester reports government agencies are, yet again, the worst-ranked industry in terms of customer experience. Why does government score so low for customer experience compared to other industries?

Todd Bergeson: Well, if we make the comparison across industries, you have to consider what types of services are being offered. Government services tend to be more serious or mundane in nature, whereas retail tends to be more lighthearted and engaging. Wouldn’t you rather browse for a new pair of shoes online rather than dig up personal documents to apply for social security benefits? I certainly would. Governments also have to fight preconceived notions that working with them is painful, that they’re less likely and slow to make changes, that they’re not doing the most with your taxpayer dollar.

What’s your opinion on the general state of customer experience in the public sector?

Todd Bergeson: Generally speaking, customer experience hasn’t been government’s primary focus – that’s the big reason why they’re so far behind. Between navigating political legislation and bureaucracy and allocating funding for community projects, I imagine customer experience is at the low end of their priorities and may even fall of their radar completely. Additionally, governments are slow to adopt new technologies which could potentially help improve customer experience. This is due to governments’ risk-averse, don’t-rock-the-boat nature – they’re just less likely to pursue new avenues as quickly as other industries.

Finally, there is also the factor of budget constraints. Government agencies tend to be much more conservative when it comes to spending, especially in areas considered ‘nice to haves.’ But there’s a big need to stretch budgets and make their dollar go further. I am optimistic that forward-looking governments are looking for new ways to streamline and optimize their processes, which often results in better decisions and experiences for the customer. There is so much untapped potential in government where improved communication methods and technologies such as data visualization and advanced analytics can improve customer experiences and outcomes.

Rather than being poor all across the board, government agencies have a very wide range of scores. What do you think might account for this broad variety in score?

Todd Bergeson: In terms of comparing agency customer experience scores that fall within the same government category, it’s important to note that government encompasses a much wider variety of agencies and services than the other categories. There are certainly some public sector brands who are far more amenable to adopting new technologies and following trends to help them provide better customers experiences. And some are just associated with better customer experiences from the start—who wants to go to a clean park? Everyone. Who wants to renew their vehicle registration tabs? Nobody. Not really an equal starting point.

At the same time, it’s fairly straightforward to set up automated systems for processes like renewing car tabs, but it’s not quite as easy to automate litter cleanup.  So there’s aspects of all agencies that can leverage new technologies, as well as places where a personal touch is required.  It’s about understanding these differences and plugging in new solutions where it makes sense.

In general, what’s the biggest complaint that you hear from people when they talk about dealing with their local governments?

Todd Bergeson: Time – it’s just too hard for people to get to the right person. They’re on the phone waiting for over an hour to get their issue resolved, or they don’t even know how to get started. Imagine a single mom working a minimum wage, hourly job trying to get in touch with her local government to fix a broken streetlight that has been out for over a month. She just wants a safe place for her kids to play, but has to sacrifice her lunch break to report the outage and potentially not even get the opportunity to connect with someone before she has to drop the call and get back to work. It’s annoying and frustrating, a truly poor customer experience.

Forrester’s research supports this notion – emotion is tightly bound to loyalty. Take the TV service provider industry for example. They had the largest percentage of annoyed customers across all the industries in Forrester’s study. I even highlighted a few great stats in the report:

“The result [of customer annoyance] is that just 8% will advocate for the brand, only 13% plan to increase their spending with the brand, and barely 15% plan to stay with the brand.”

Just like people want to resolve their TV issues quickly, citizens want to get their problem solved quickly. And “quick” is the opposite of what comes to mind when people think of government. And they’re not wrong. The government generally is slow. Apart from the obvious bureaucratic aspects of the public sector, a lot of lag results from the outdated systems and tools they’re using. But the good news is there are more and more viable options available—even for governments that are constrained by budget, resource and security limitations.

Alright, we’ve talked a lot about the negatives. Let’s talk about the path forward—what’s the easiest way for governments to change their perception of having poor customer experiences?

Todd Bergeson: It all starts with communication. Instead of only using “snail mail” to engage with citizens, governments are starting to see the benefits of multichannel communication. They realize that citizens want the flexibility to interact with public agencies through the most convenient means, at the most convenient time. Some have started offering services through their websites, mobile apps, in person, or by phone. Adding alternative contact methods that don’t require extensive oversight means that providing services becomes far less expensive and available for citizens 24/7.  You can read about examples of this in our previous blog, “What do Cape Town, Newham, and Grand Rapids have in common?

Some other industries, like finance, have been able to move into omnichannel engagement, which means that in addition to multiple touch points, transactions with their customers are integrated. Furthermore, companies are establishing a presence and connecting with customers on social media. Government agencies have started to increase their presence on social media but it will require a couple intermediate steps for government agencies to really transform their approach.  We had a great conversation about this topic and how some cities and organizations are moving toward omnichannel engagement at the Envision Conference, in April.

I recognize that using the words change and government in one sentence can be a challenge—the public sector certainly isn’t known for being receptive to change or speedy when implementing it. But I’ve seen some public services agencies working with modern, more flexible technologies to get change implemented quickly and without breaking the bank. Trends like with open source are making a big difference in industries where budgets are a blocker.

The report clearly tells us that the bar for customer experience quality has been steadily rising. What do you think this means for the public sector in the future—will they be able to catch up or are they too far behind at this point?

Todd Bergeson: They’re definitely not too far behind. As I mentioned previously, many organizations are making enormous strides already. They’re learning from the private sector’s experience and taking on some of their best practices to help guide their path, hopefully avoiding missteps when adopting new approaches.

There are examples all over the country and world of innovative ways that governments are using technology to serve their citizens. I think it’s just a matter of time before citizens’ expectations for customer experience are fulfilled in the public sector just as they are in private industries. So, all in all, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the path forward.

¹ The US Customer Experience Index, 2016”, Forrester Research, Inc., July 18, 2016

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