Agency services lack consistency, coordination

Thursday - 9/2/2010, 6:39am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller with Kevin Pashchuck, vice president of public sector at RightNow Technologies

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

As the White House turns up the expectations for agencies to provide better services to citizens, several trends are starting to emerge about why this is so difficult.

The Office of Management and Budget found that many agency-run websites and call centers are separate operations.

OMB's acting director Jeff Zients wrote in a blog Aug. 10 that there is little interaction between the two offices and that goes against industry best practices.

"We also are reviewing organizational obstacles that get in the way of the type of customer service best practices," Zients wrote. "We also are working to overcome the regulatory and logistical constraints on agency efforts to capture and act on customer satisfaction and feedback. We've already issued new guidance to enable agencies to use social media and web analytics to better connect with citizens and will have more to announce in the months ahead."

OMB is looking for help from some of the largest private sector firms to improve how agencies interact with citizens. The goal is to bring in private sector best practices, improve how agencies measure customer satisfaction and encourage agencies to post customer service standards.

At the same time, several agencies are trying to get ahead of OMB's mandates by making their customer service operations better.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for instance, implemented an online self-help tool for citizens to find answers to questions.

Kevin Paschuck, the vice president of public sector at RightNow Technologies, said CMS's online tool helps answer many of the 2 million website hits the agency gets a day.

CMS implemented RightNow's cloud-based technology about five years ago to help improve its customer service.

"CMS needs to serve the citizens, but it did not have the funding for a call center so it is pushing information to citizens," Paschuck said. "CMS built that business case to say that if they had agents to address all these hits and queries it would have cost more."

RightNow and MeriTalk recently surveyed 1,000 citizens about the customer service perceptions and needs. It found, not surprisingly, that most respondents believed the government could do a better job meeting customer needs.

RightNow also is helping the Social Security Administration, the General Services Administration and the Army and Air Force human capital organizations upgrade external and internal customer service operations. Paschuck said whether agencies are looking to help internal or external customers, the starting point must be building a knowledge base or foundation.

He said there is nothing more frustrating for a caller than to be passed around, get the wrong answer, get two different answers or get no response at all because the Web people and the call center operators aren't working off the same data.

"Agencies should start with the top 50 questions or things citizens want to do and let the knowledge base self learn," he said. "Over time, if 50 people a week are asking the same question and the knowledge isn't out there, the system is smart enough to say people asking similar questions so we should put answer out there. Also, contact centers can be proactive instead of running the customer experience like an emergency room where people are coming to them and they are doing triage all the time."

Paschuck said agencies can push information to citizens or employees when needed. For instance in the Defense Department, if a million soldiers and civilian employees' secure identity cards are expiring in November, the Pentagon could push a reminder out a month or two before with links telling the employees how to renew the Common Access Cards.

Once agencies have that knowledge base, Paschuck said they can move to multi-channel interactions through call centers, online chats and social networking.

Eventually, the government can push data out to the search engines. Paschuck said GSA through its USA.gov site is moving in that direction.

"GSA has taken the USA.gov site and linked with Census, SSA and others agencies so when citizens do a search, they don't have to go to multiple places for information," he said. "USA.gov pulls in data from those sites so the citizen gets the answer they need, but never has to leave the first site they went to."

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