Agencies find digital gov success by focusing on customers

Editor’s Note: Katie Messner’s experience has been updated to reflect her work with 

As agencies and departments transition to a more digital government, many are finding the key to success is shaping their web-based services around customer feedback.

The DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit, hosted Thursday by the General Services Administration, explored many of the tactics federal organizations are using to bring their online presence and operations up to speed, but a resounding number of the representatives at the event referred to the customer as their main focus.

“Customer service is the new marketing,” said Hillary Hartley, lead designer at GSA’s 18F, which delivers digital services to federal agencies. She said the evolution in government is “to be where your customer is going to be, and be where the users are. Think about putting the users at the heart of your service. All of the things that we build are services, at the end of the day.”


In the past, many agencies have built websites around their organizational structure serving their own needs. But Abraham Marinez, senior adviser for federal student aid at the Education Department, said that’s the wrong thought process. Recently, he and his 80-person customer experience team built, a site focused around customers’ wants and needs.

“Customers were telling us for years: ‘You guys have too many websites, there’s content here but I have to fill out the application here. We want a place where we can [do all that at once],” Marinez said.

So in 2012, Marinez and his team set out on a journey to create a completely responsive user experience for students seeking federal aid.

“It consolidated all of our sites that had content around federal financial aid into one place,” he said.

And even as recent as three weeks ago, Marinez’s customer experience office continues tailoring the site to customers’ needs, this time giving them the ability to view their financial aid history. In total, they’ve turned five sites into one “easy and seamless” site, he said, which not only benefits the customer, but also saves the Education Department money.


But different customers have different concerns.

Katie Messner, a public affairs specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services who worked on, faced different challenges. Some of the engagement her agency was seeking was too sensitive and personal for its customers to share.

“People don’t necessarily want to talk about losing their hair or about a mental health issue,” Messner said.

Because of challenges like those, agencies are having to develop new, innovative approaches to customer engagement.

“I think that the real power comes when you think about how to change the engagement model from the bottom up, and that’s really what 18F is trying to do,” GSA’s Hartley said. “We’re going to be more on the ground, more in your face. And also just from an open source perspective, actually changing the contribution model and allowing people to think about what it means to contribute to their government.”


But turning the government into a more digital space utlimately comes back to agencies making the customer number one.

“It’s about trying to change the culture to make the customer be the focus,” Marinez said. “That’s why we’re here.”


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