This post is part of a series dedicated to the challenges, opportunities, and realities of federal customer experience. Interested in learning more? Register for our complimentary government CX webinar next week, and be sure to join me as I host Forrester’s first-ever CXDC Forum on Sept. 12th in Washington, DC.

It’s been 23 years since the White House first told federal agencies to improve the experiences they provide to customers. Yet three presidents, two executive orders, and a bevy of memos and committees later, federal customer experience (CX) is still in crisis. In fact, federal agencies have:

  • The lowest average score on Forrester’s CX Index. The federal average of “poor” was worse than all 17 private sector industries we rated and far below the overall average of “OK.” In fact, even the weakest performers in most industries still outscored the government average. The National Park Service and US Postal Service, the highest-rated federal agencies, scored only as high as the average for banks.
  • A near-monopoly on the worst experiences. Seven out of the 10 worst organizations in the CX Index – and five out of six in the “very poor” category – were US federal agencies. Only internet service providers and TV service providers came close to matching this level of underperformance.
  • Shockingly bad websites. Forrester’s Consumer Technographics survey shows that only 53% of customers agree that federal websites are “exactly what [they] should be.” Fewer than three in five customers consider federal sites easy to use or well organized.

What accounts for this sad lack of progress? Most critics point to the usual suspects: entrenched bureaucracies; waste, fraud, and abuse; and distractions caused by scandals, elections, and wars. But there is another force at work that doesn’t get talked about in polite company: powerful groups that are actively working to undermine federal CX – sometimes unintentionally and sometimes on purpose. They are:

  • Lobbyists and PR hacks. Bad federal CX is often good for business. That’s why some companies fight hard to undercut government in the name of profit. A company that makes tax filing software has spent over $13 million in just the past five years lobbying against laws that would let the IRS automatically calculate taxes and send refunds. The firm’s lobbyists even drummed up a fake grassroots campaign against the proposal. A consortium of paper manufacturers has fought hard to stop the Social Security Administration, Food and Drug Administration, and Securities and Exchange Commission from replacing cumbersome paper documents with more convenient and flexible electronic versions.
  • Anti-government activists in Congress and society. Some activists oppose certain federal agencies on ideological grounds. Their targets range from the well-known Department of Education to the comparatively obscure Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the virtually unknown USDA Catfish Inspection Program. Activists know that ruining these agencies’ CX is a great way to turn the public against them, too. That’s why some members of Congress cut the IRS budget during the past six years. They knew the cuts would undermine IRS’ CX, and that’s exactly what happened: thanks to staff cuts, the IRS picks up the phone 25% less often, customers spend twice as long on hold, and the public gets angrier at IRS as a result.
  • Selfish federal leaders. Some senior federal leaders are more concerned about landing the next job than they are about truly succeeding at the current one. As a result, these leaders focus on half-baked vanity projects that make good headlines at the expense of sustainable, strategic CX efforts. The problem is especially acute now, near the end of an administration. An outgoing appointee at one agency recently tried to enact a careless reorganization that would look good to potential private sector employers but undercut the agency’s ability to provide a unified, end-to-end customer experience. Another senior exec is still trying to impress commentators with a voluntary across-the-board budget cut that would gut digital CX investments.

With forces like this opposing them, federal CX pros may be tempted to just give up. Don’t! Federal CX is too important. Our research shows that better federal CX is:

  • A national security imperative. That’s no exaggeration. Poor federal CX actually weakens the underpinnings of our political system by making people less proud and optimistic about the country itself. Our CX Index shows that the worse a citizen’s experience as the customer of a federal agency, the less likely that person is to say he is proud of the country and optimistic about its future. Not less proud of a particular agency, official, or administration – but of the country itself. That’s a real drag on the nation’s long-term security and vitality.
  • Critical to mission success. To accomplish their missions – whether providing services or benefits, collecting information, or enforcing regulations – federal agencies need customers to follow their directives, engage even when they don’t have to, and say positive things about their experience to others (see Figure 1). Our research proves that the better an agency’s CX, the more likely customers are to do these three things.

  • A key component of efficiency. Agencies that improve their CX also provide better value for taxpayers because great CX saves money and boosts employee engagement. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) wage reporting mobile app is a great experience for recipients and saves the SSI program money by reducing benefit overpayments and syncing with legacy systems that weren’t being used to their full potential. And because the app also streamlines internal processes and improves interactions with customers, SSI employees are happier and more engaged.

It’s high time for federal agencies to overcome anti-CX forces and achieve these important benefits. In my next post, I’ll delve into what federal CX pros can do to get Washington’s efforts back on track.