One of the many lessons taught by the Covid crisis in 2020 was that government agencies needed to deliver excellent consumer experiences to citizens. And good customer service from government entities wasn’t  just about good public relations. Citizen experience became an extremely serious matter, as it could avert dire outcomes up to and including serious illness and death.


The reliance of wide sectors of the public on customer facing software became an issue like never before. Some systems were stressed and put to uses never envisioned. And many citizens were essentially being trained in new ways of engaging with municipal agencies.


As the crisis fades and we move into the future, valuable lessons can be learned.


Tests in Real Time


The crisis of the pandemic forced government agencies to speedily deploy new initiatives. And, of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. News reports throughout 2020 and into 2021 often featured horror stories of websites crashing. Citizens could become frustrated and unable to access benefits or appointments for vaccinations. Many citizens felt shut out, disadvantaged by lack of computer access or insufficient skills navigating online systems.


Much will be learned by conducting after-action reports on how well specific systems worked. Savvy administrators will be attentive to such reports and stand to glean valuable insights.


A report by Deloitte, published in September 2021 within the Wall Street Journal, already provides some useful insights. In a survey of 800 government officials in eight countries, Deloitte reported “nearly three quarters of respondents said the pandemic accelerated their government’s digital transformation, yet 80% believed their organizations’ digital efforts hadn’t gone far enough.”


Deloitte’s report also noted that the pandemic emphasized the need for government agencies to aggressively shift from “doing” digital, meaning embracing some online options, to “being” digital, in the sense that digital operations can “radically transform service delivery.”


Basic Principles Still Matter


A report by McKinsey, published before the pandemic, noted that challenges to government agencies providing citizen experiences were not uncommon. Many government entities found it difficult to obtain reliable research on their customers because of legislative restrictions. And as some agencies provide services through third parties, it could be difficult to accurately assess customer needs.


McKinsey advised government agencies to follow three basic steps to try to understand the customer experience: “putting themselves in the shoes of their customers, understanding their end-to-end customer journeys with the service, and isolating the moments that disproportionately shape their experience along the way.”


The McKinsey report emphasized a critical difference between citizen experience and ordinary customer service: a government agency generally has to serve everyone with its mandated mission. It can’t ignore some customers. From the customer’s standpoint, they do not have somewhere else to take their business.


Understanding the customer journey is very important and not only customer touch points should be evaluated. The McKinsey report provides an example that someone may receive a good and useful answer to a specific question when contacting the I.R.S. Yet the entire experience may be problematic overall if the citizen had problems contacting someone who could finally give them that satisfactory answer.


Concentrated efforts should be expended on avoiding negative defining moments. Citizens dealing with municipal agencies may receive generally good service, but one bad encounter can take on great importance and color the entire experience. People tend to remember experiences that are not ordinary, and isolated bad experiences will naturally seem significant. 


Moving Forward


It’s important to consider the experience of citizens who either had no access to computers and broadband, or were not sufficiently capable at using online systems. While many in society still have no access or insufficient online skills, the need to engage online for critical services during the pandemic introduced many citizens to a new way of interfacing with the government.


It’s safe to assume that citizens who had new and positive experiences dealing with the government online, from municipal agencies to federal offices, will be comfortable doing so in the future. And that emphasizes how important citizen experience will be going forward.


A fascinating example of a government agency becoming a laudable example of digital government is the Library of Congress. A Washington Post editorial in June 2021 praised the library for the innovative ways it is bringing its collections of documents to an ever increasing public audience.


The nation’s library was once considered a laggard in adapting to digital culture. But in recent years it has embraced new technologies, including experimentations with neural networks and other forms of artificial intelligence to comb through its archives.


The Washington Post editorial noted that the advances in the Library of Congress should serve as an example to agencies at all levels of government. The editorial’s final sentence: “Digital government is also by, for and of the people.”