Why CX in government is not performing as well as in the private sector.

Or how I learned that the US government is systemically inconsiderate of American’s time.

The problem: the public spends an incredible amount of time trying and often failing to navigate burdensome federal services.

Many efforts are underway to improve the design and delivery of federal program services ranging from benefits enrollment, to public health information, to ensuring regulatory compliance. However, these efforts do not seem adequate to most outside observers. Customer experience (CX) in government does not get the attention or investment it does in the private sector. Especially in comparison to related priorities such as technology modernization and the proverbial ‘waste, fraud, and abuse’.

My hypothesis is that this is due to three connected reasons:
1. Agencies have not defined a CX goal — reducing friction and service time — and are underestimating the time it takes to use public services.
2. Recent strides to improve customer experience have lacked an economic calculation of benefit, an ROI.
3. OMB’s role to enforce agency accountability for service delivery has to date been fragmented across multiple offices.

Our recommendation? Elevate customer performance indicators and service metrics, and more specifically, the speed of service and take-up or conversion — fairly common in the private sector — to the mission-level of agency performance frameworks and revise how the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) coordinates to perform the burden reduction goals of the Paperwork Reduction Act.

1. Agencies have not defined a CX goal — reducing friction and service time — and are underestimating the time it takes to use public services.

Public programs cost money to run. They also take time to use. The time the public spends accessing and using public programs is in economic terms an externality — an invisible tax of time that equates to a low estimate of $690 billion per year. For example: according to independent researchers, the value of the time it took taxpayers in 2014 to prepare and file taxes equated to $225 billion. Further, estimates of the time spent using non-Treasury services may have doubled from 2006 to 2016.


$690 billion is a rough low estimate based on the data above and our own assessments of a few archetypal services. It could be double that figure; nobody really knows what the true cost our our collective burden is, and therein lies the problem. OIRA (The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) reports a lower number, due to the fact that their calculations account for time spent on individual forms (called Information Collection Requests). Our team sought to explore the degree to which the current individual form approach undercounts the amount of time participants really need to complete a service from start to finish to meet their need. After investigating several services we found these estimates to short by a factor of 10, and in one case by a factor of nearly 100.

As an example, take a relatively simple and effective service: replacing one’s social security card. OIRA estimates “it will take 8.5 to 9.5 minutes to read the instructions, gather the facts, and answer the questions” on the SS5 form. This does not include an hour or more to research if a new card is necessary, find the appropriate form to complete, avoid scam sites, perhaps call in with questions. In five states the process requires printing the form and delivering or mailing it to a local Social Security office, often with original documents (e.g., a physical driver’s license). This system is not only cumbersome, and much longer than an average of 9 minutes, it also leads to unforced errors, adding more time.

Currently, our federal system of burden calculation for ICRs only looks at the costs. The costs are even more damaging to society. Cass Sunstein, former OIRA Administrator and co-author of Nudge points out that “Sludge can impair health, reduce growth, entrench poverty, and exacerbate inequality. Confronted by sludge, people just give up — and lose a promised outcome: a visa, a job, a permit, an educational opportunity, necessary medical help.” The difficulties experienced when using services are referred to as ‘friction’ in the private sector, ‘sludge’ by Thaler and Sunstein, and Administrative Burden in the treatise by Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan of Georgetown University.

2. Recent strides to improve customer experience have lacked an economic calculation of benefit.

Many federal agencies are now measuring customer satisfaction and trust through feedback surveys. While this isn’t garnering the attention the problem needs, we have learned a lot. Analyzing over two million survey responses collected last year revealed that Ease (It was easy to complete what I needed to do) and Efficiency (It took a reasonable amount of time to do what I needed to do) affected Trust more than Effectiveness, Transparency, and People. I wrote about this research on performance.gov/cx. This suggests that efforts to lessen burdens in public services might reverse the decades-long downward trend of trust in government. Perhaps organizations are harder to trust if they don’t seem to care about your time.

Reducing the time it takes to use federal programs is foundational to rebuild trust in government. A few forward-thinking agencies have figured this out. The work that started my investigation into burden was a project by fellow PIFs Nelson Colon, PhD and Zach Goldfine, and others in the Veteran’s Administration’s talented Office of Information and Technology. They used machine learning in claims processing to streamline disability claims by making a model that translated how Veterans described symptoms into the way the VA bureaucracy understands them, saving Veterans days of wait time. Colon, Goldfine, and team came to this innovation in part by reading Administrative Burden and using its framework below of learning, compliance, and psychological costs.


CMS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is also attuned to the linkage between CX and customer burden reduction. The Patients Over Paperwork program reports $5.7 billion and 40 million annual hours reduced to date. “archived source

Having worked with customer experience teams in fourteen agencies over the past year, achievements like these are harder to attain by those in other agencies. Federal healthcare programs have a very natural private sector parallel to learn from — and that field has demonstrated time and time again that positive customer experiences are essential to patient outcomes. For the VA in particular, they face actual market pressure for customers to “Choose VA” — something only a few agencies, like the Postal Service, also face. In absence of competition, and with many Federal programs and services being “the only show in town,” agencies will need a clearer understanding of how investment in improving the customer experience drives important outcomes like cost efficiency, program integrity, and improved mission outcomes.

3. OMB’s role to enforce agency accountability for service delivery has to date been fragmented across multiple offices.

Five teams at OMB are responsible for aspects of guiding, modernizing, and reporting service delivery improvements. The mission of the CX team at OMB is building trust by providing an accountability framework for service delivery to incentivize agency improvements in experience and support them in increasing their ability to more actively listen and respond to the voices of the individuals programs are meant to serve. It is part of the Management side of OMB that sets “the goals and outcomes the Federal Government is working to accomplish, how it seeks to accomplish them, and how agencies are performing.” The U.S. Digital Service (USDS) works on the design and technical sides of the problem. The Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer provides guidance to agencies on many technical areas that influence how our programs are designed and operated, and works with agencies on their implementation of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act. The Office of Federal Financial Management oversees agencies work on reporting on “improper payments” and ensuring program integrity measures are upheld. And finally, overseeing the approval of government information collections is the domain of OIRA, which was created through the Paperwork Reduction Act. The PRA is known by many as a hindrance to customer research but its original purpose is to reduce burden. To realize the full potential of the PRA, OMB needs all of these teams to work together and elicit similar collaborations within agencies.

Improving service delivery will require a holistic and scalable approach to measuring time and take-up rates.

Greater investment in CX will come through realizing the economic case to do so. By taking the cost of time into consideration, CX efforts to reduce burdens can easily pay for themselves many times over. Reflecting on my time in government, I would recommend the following:

1. Conversion and opportunity costs are the critical results measures of CX. The objectives of improving public experiences have been clear for some time. The quantifiable key results, in OKR parlance, have not. In the benefits space, fore example, track the completion rates of eligible applicants. Put the opportunity costs of end-to-end service time onto federal agency balance sheets. Treat it as an operating expense or a fee paid by the public. Set target goals for burden reduction. This single step will encourage government agencies to refocus their energy on understanding and improving customer experience as the private sector does.

2. Staff cross-disciplinary teams aimed at tackling burden. Put the costs of burden in the cross-hairs of CX teams across government. At OMB, staff a cross-disciplinary team of researchers, strategists, product managers, designers, and performance managers, working with the lawyers, economists, and regulatory experts at OIRA. They should establish a measurement framework and cadence for Federal agencies, and this team can work to more holistically assess programs and services for burdens and disparities. Importantly, they can then use the budget, policy, and other levers OMB possesses to direct both incremental and big, innovative actions to reduce or remove the costliest barriers.

3. Shed light on the lived experience of those who have been chronically underserved. This team could be a key part of a concerted program on Equity, one of the Biden Administration’s top priorities, by providing technical assistance and guiding agencies to identify the disparities of service burden and take-up rates for distinct population groups. Invest in listening tools. Conduct diary studies and other remote research methods for witnessing the realities of time spent, and burdens and inequities encountered within the entire workflow of the service and across programs and services.

The economic opportunity cost of burden is the ROI lynchpin in trust and technology modernization.

What happens when the public’s time is undervalued? Consider the familiar mobile order coffee pick-up experience. What does this image tell you about how this business thinks about speed of service?

Their coffee customers may value quick pick-up over the risk of a lower temperature coffee. The service is optimized with this in mind. Businesses extensively analyze the value of faster service versus lower prices, higher quality, and the risks of ‘waste, fraud, and abuse’. Speed, often by way of simplicity, is a customer-centered cost-benefit counterweight, and a competitive imperative. As Google SVP of Engineering, Urs Hoelzle says “” When the public’s time is treated as a limitless resource, agency efforts to reduce operational costs — even with good intentions of, for example, going with a lower-cost IT contract that doesn’t include agile sprints — have increased the overall cost to the public in failed program design.

Waste, fraud, and abuse are important too, but we are learning that this is not a zero-sum game. The emerging field of behavior design and the use of nudge theories like defaulting choices for positive behavior point the way. Look at voting trends in Georgia: An Automatic Voter Registration question on new driver’s license applications, along with other voter initiatives have made the services faster, increased take-up by 90 percent, and lowered fraud (as frequently “fraud” is really just mistakes caused by confusing forms and processes).

Turning burden into dollars could put CX on the map. With more prominent service metrics, framed in economic terms, the customer experience and digital modernization efforts so many civil servants are ‘pushing’ would be ‘pulled’ by Federal agency leaders, Congress, GAO, and the public. Investments in service design and delivery, including hiring technology and design talent, will become more naturally justified to agency decision models and operations.

Prioritizing the opportunity costs of slow service establishes a clear, measurable outcome for validating new features, is easy for the public to value, and for agency leaders to work into financials-centric performance management frameworks. Agencies should view themselves as being good stewards of public time as well as money. Doing so is critical to improving trust in government and equity in service delivery.

2020-21 White House Presidential Innovation Fellow