Eric Keller is a senior research manager at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives for a more effective government for the American people. He manages a portfolio of high-visibility research activities and products on a variety of federal management topics, and he leads the partnership's work to help strengthen the customer experience with federal services. Prior to joining the partnership, he worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a presidential management fellow and grants policy analyst.

Eric is the project lead for the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture 2017 report, The Most Important Customer: Improving the Citizen Experience with Government. This report highlights several areas where improvements in customer service can lead to better business outcomes for agencies in areas such as safety and security, waste, and reducing regulatory burdens.

Your report features the State Department's effort to make it easier for U.S. citizens to replace lost or stolen passports. What are some of the benefits of that effort?

Each week, thousands of people lose their passports or have them stolen. While this is an issue of national security, many of these incidents have gone unreported, likely because some people found the process for submitting a report inconvenient. You had to either pick up the phone, mail a form, or go into an office.

In 2015, when the department implemented an online option for filing these reports, it immediately started receiving more notifications. Over two years, the department saw a 46 percent increase in the number of reported lost or stolen passports. This online option made it easier for citizens to interact with State, and it improved the agency's ability to cancel these passports and alert other government bodies if these documents fell into the wrong hands.

What potential is there for mobile platforms in government customer service?

Over the last 90 days, more than 40 percent of visits to government websites came from mobile devices, so there is tremendous potential for government to use mobile.

For example, a main priority at the Social Security Administration was to cut down improper payments to beneficiaries. The agency needed to collect better data about beneficiaries' wages, but citizens could only report earnings by mail, phone, or visiting a field office. In August 2013, SSA released a mobile app and quickly began receiving about 4,000 wage updates a month through the app. By early September 2016, the number had jumped to more than 60,000. The agency made the process more convenient for citizens and gathered the data it needed to reduce improper payments—which ultimately saves taxpayer money.

What do you recommend government agencies do if they want to better track their customer service efforts?

Many federal agencies rely on annual customer surveys to measure the effectiveness of their services, but these surveys can be problematic. First, the data contained in them are often outdated when they reach decision makers. Second, these surveys usually don't provide any granular information about the performance of specific processes or web pages. By shifting their focus to gathering and acting on data tied to specific transactions, collected in real time, it becomes much easier for agencies to respond to citizen needs.

Another technique federal leaders can use to track their service efforts is monitoring social media mentions and chatter. Plenty of private companies already do this, and that practice often helps them become aware of issues before they develop into major problems.

What do you see as the main barriers to improving government customer service?

One of the biggest impediments is that agencies often either don't have customer feedback or don't use it to improve services. Recently, two senators—James Lankford of Oklahoma and Claire McCaskill of Missouri—introduced legislation to address this challenge. The bill, called the Federal Agency Customer Experience Act, would set guidelines for soliciting and acting on citizen feedback. It also would make it easier for agencies to get this feedback by revising a requirement that agencies go through a complex approval process before they can contact 10 or more members of the public for any type of voluntary feedback, which can discourage federal employees from getting closer to their customers.

What strategies would you recommend for agency leaders who don't know where to start when it comes to improving service outcomes?

Start by looking at the examples set by the State Department and SSA. Whenever an agency can change how it does business in ways that makes its services more convenient for citizens and furthers its overall mission, you have a win-win scenario.

Another example of this is when the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) launched its Customer Experience Office. One of the first things this office did was consolidate four different financial aid websites that all had similar functions. By consolidating these sites, FSA made information easier to find and saved $1.5 million in costs to operate the websites.


Listen to an interview with Eric Keller on the Public Manager podcast.