Mandates for better federal customer experience (CX) have been piling up for more than 20 years. The trend began way back in 1993, when Executive Order No. 12862 required federal agencies to create basic CX standards. The strongest and most recent mandate is last year’s “customer service” cross-agency priority goal, which requires federal agencies to provide the public with experiences “comparable to [those] they receive from leading private sector organizations.”

That’s a tall order, especially since federal CX is so bad. Despite these two decades of mandates, federal agencies earned an average rank of “very poor” on Forrester’s CX Index™ — the lowest ranking of all of the industries we rated. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the highest-rated federal agency, was still among the very-lowest-ranked organizations in any industry.

But why does that matter? After all, government agencies usually have no competitors, so there’s no pressure to get and keep customers. The basic market motivation just isn’t there.

My research has revealed a host of reasons why federal agencies must improve their CX, despite not having to worry about market factors. Here are the top four reasons I’ve uncovered:

  • Poor federal CX shakes the foundations of our political system. That’s a bold claim, and we have the data to back it up. Weak federal customer experiences hurt people’s pride in the country, their optimism for the country’s future, their feelings of importance as citizens, and their expectations for the capabilities of government. In fact, our CX Index shows that only VA’s CX manages to instill pride and optimism in more than half of customers. In contrast, the IRS’s CX does the same less than a quarter of the time.
  • Weak federal CX hurts individual agencies, too. Agencies that provide bad CX open themselves up to embarrassment and unwelcome scrutiny. They also undermine their senior leaders and can even hurt the efficacy of legislation. The botched rollout of made the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a punch line for much of 2014, and persistently bad CX sparked media and congressional investigations into the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2012. Last year alone, the heads of HHS and VA resigned over CX scandals and other high-ranking officials lost their jobs, too. The CX failure even caused the administration to postpone insurance registration deadlines and shelve online enrollment of small businesses for an entire year.
  • Better CX creates more engaged customers. To accomplish their missions, federal agencies need customers to follow their directives and advice. Customers are more likely to do so when they have good experiences with that agency. Customers who have good experiences are also more likely to engage with an agency even when they don’t have to and say good things about that agency to their friends. Check out #TSAPrecheck for pages of positive customer comments about an agency that was a laughingstock just a few years ago. And in a democracy, that’s serious business. When customers say good things about an agency, they create the conventional wisdom that drives public sentiment, political calculations, and congressional decision-making.
  • Improving CX also makes for healthier, more effective organizations. CX isn’t a cost center — it’s a force multiplier. That’s because better CX sparks internal efficiencies, employee engagement, and great ideas that can make federal agencies run better. Federal Student Aid and the Social Security Administration (SSA) are already saving millions every year thanks to efficiencies gained by better CX. SSA employees are also happier because a popular new digital self-service channel has reduced their workload. Federal agencies using the crowdsourcing platform bring customers into their research and decision-making processes to get better ideas faster and cheaper than they could with traditional methods.

Improving federal CX isn’t quite a silver bullet, but it may be the closest thing we have. It’s a compelling case that I explain in much greater detail in my full report. A few agencies that understand the urgency have already started improving their CX, but most of Washington just keeps falling further and further behind. And as we’ve seen, that’s bad for their customers, themselves, and the country.