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Want fries with that treatment, soldier?

August 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Customer service is all the rage in the federal government.

Again.

A series of lapses that includes the healthcare.gov rollout and the well-documented problems with service provided by the Veterans Affairs Department have alerted the administration to the need for better customer experiences, whether in person, on the phone or online. The digital strategy is supposed to take care of improving the online part. It is one in a series of initiatives dating back to the Clinton administration’s E-gov project. That in turn had antecedent in the “Service to the Citizen” movement of the George H.W. Bush administration of the pre-Web days. E-gov’s offspring was the Quicksliver series of projects of the George W. Bush administration.

It’s good that these efforts are revisited periodically. Technology and expectations change. Too bad the government has to lurch from crisis to crisis to get with it, though.

I had to chuckle when discovering that VA Secretary Bob McDonald brought in former McDonald’s executive Tom Allin, the fast food chain, as the chief veterans experience manager. As a habitue of McDonald’s for its coffee and occasional Egg McMuffin, I’ve seen customer service there up close. Don’t tell me you don’t go to McDonald’s. Nobody goes to McDonald’s like nobody watches television or listens to the radio unless it’s NPR. Yeah, sure.

At McDonald’s, I noticed the other day that counter employees work in an incessant cacophony of beeping food preparation apparatus, back-shop employees shouting at one another, and piped in Musak. They have to scurry to and fro for all of the detritus — bags, napkins, cups ketchups, and the food itself — that make up an order. Something’s always broken, like the receipt printer, the credit card reader, the machine that squirts out “ice cream,” … something. When the young lady finally collected herself and met my eyes, I couldn’t help but ask, “Are you still taking orders?” To myself, I thought, if this is fast food, what the heck is slow food? As one of only two people in line I wondered, How do they cope when it’s crowded?

I’d walked over from my car dealer, where I’d left my car for an oil change. It was quieter there, but the customer service representatives had all of this elaborate paperwork, had to dart back to a bank of printers, and out of their booths to the rear. It felt like it took as long to check in a car for an oil change as to actually change the oil.

These service employees face the same bureaucratically-induced barrier of process complexity and unreliable systems as their counterparts in the government. It’s a fine step for VA to have metrics for appointment wait times, or the IRS for phone answering times. But unless the systems are geared to enable people to reach these goals, they won’t happen. Insufficient staff, crappy software, an overly complex process — these can all get in the way of the even the most dedicated humans who are trying to do a good job.

I spoke about customer service the other day with Deloitte principal Greg Pellegrino, who headed up a survey on the state of customer service in the federal government. The survey’s basic finding, to not put maple syrup on a pickle, is the government thinks it gives better service than the public thinks it does.

Pelligrino points out three data points. One, the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index shows federal service getting worse, at the bottom of the heap. Two, Gallup polls show a slippage in public confidence in the government. Three, the most recent Viewpoint survey of federal employees shows a decline in job satisfaction. The third point is related to the first two, Pellegrino says. Basically, a combination of stingy budgets, lack of focus on customer service and unhappiness on the job have combined to weigh down the experience have with federal services.

All that plus a mismatch of intent and the technology to carry it out.

A new way to think about this, or perhaps it’s an old way dusted off at a time of great technological change, is outlined in a Harvard Business Review article by Jon Kolko, a vice president of Blackboard. He describes an approach called design centric thinking. It’s a “set of principles [encompassing] empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and a tolerance for failure” all aimed a creating a customer-centric culture. Translation: You combine clear thinking with agile development principles.

Kolko says design-centric thinking applied originally to physical objects. Now organizations are applying it to services. And get this: There’s a great example at the Veterans Affairs Department, of all places. VA’s Center for Innovation used this kind of thinking to envision a “customer journey map to understand veterans’ emotional highs and lows in their interaction with the VA.” A map like that can point the way to better customer service by aligning systems, processes and what the customer wants.

Image that.

Government overlooks diamonds in its own back yard

May 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Nearly a century ago, a speech called “Acres of Diamonds” ranked high on the entertainment charts. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University and the author of the essay on which it was based, delivered it 5,000 times between 1900 and 1925. Although part of the American canon of rhetoric, few nowadays know much about it. The main theme of the essay and speech is simple: Often people overlook their own back yards when seeking fortune and success. It’s an old-fashioned sounding piece, but it came to mind earlier this week during a panel discussion I moderated along with Jonathan Aberman of TandemNSI and Amplifier Ventures.

Our ostensible topic was how government program managers, R&D people and executives can more readily take advantage of the entrepreneurial and start-up technology community in the D.C. region, the federal government’s back yard. But a good deal of the discussion centered on the government’s seeming fascination with Silicon Valley. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he’ll establish a satellite office there. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also has the Silicon Valley bug. The Obama administration has recruited several appointees from the Valley, including Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, lately of Google. The White House Digital Services team is headed by another ex-Googler, Mickey Dickerson. The rest of it is heavy with people from Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the like.

With respect to DOD, maybe a little perspective is in order. Mike Daniels has been founder, executive, seller and acquirer of federal contractors for decades. He says Valley fever has swept the government before. He counts three times over the last 35 years or so. And every time federal leaders traipse out there looking for start-up diamonds, they find out how culturally different things are out there. Without judging which is superior, Daniels says he’s never heard a Valley venture capitalist or entrepreneurial say a primary reason for a new company was to help the government solve a problem. The systems integrators and technology product companies locally have often been started by former feds, including military officers. Daniels says their orientation is, of course to make money, but their frequently-stated mission is to help the government.

Tech veteran Anup Ghosh — he founded cybersecurity outfit Invincea — comes from DARPA and so has something of a federal orientation. He says federally-focused startups proceed from a different model than those in Silicon Valley. In the D.C. region, the typical model starts with government services. This lets them win some contracts, establish a revenue stream and make a profit fairly soon. It’s a bootstrap model that can lead to second-round financing. By contract, in the Valley startups tend to lead with groundbreaking products, little thought of revenue, and the agility to keep morphing until they hit on something someone wants to buy.

Ghosh argues, the services or body-shop model doesn’t scale easily because it requires a constant linear increase in the number of people to be able to do more professional services. By contrast, products, especially software, can scale exponentially without a matching overhead increase.

The bootstrap-contract model, according to former Naval R&D guy Bob Morgan, a founder of MorganFranklin Consulting, gives the D.C. startup community a boring reputation. But often, he and others note, the products they are working on are secret because they have a national security application. Or because the government is reticent, and doesn’t want contractors talking about what they are working on.

Ghosh, Morgan, Daniels all agree, the D.C. startup environment is smaller and more specialized than that of Silicon Valley, and it lacks a catchy and enduring moniker. Daniels noted the D.C. tech community tried to brand itself back in the 1990s, but whatever name it came up with quickly faded. Silicon Valley acquired its nickname around 1980, when silicon — semiconductor design and manufacturing, as opposed to software — powered the torrid growth of the place. Plus, its name came externally and spontaneously, not from an ad agency. Throughout the world, D.C. is inseparable from the federal government. Those of us who live and work in and around D.C. know it’s a real place with real people and culture, but no ad agency could alter the external view of it.

The D.C. region is rich in startups and entrepreneurialism in cybersecurity, biology and genetics, robotics, and data analytics. From the discussion I heard, the consensus is that the federal government’s requirements remain a valuable source of money to fuel this growth activity. TandemNSI founder Jonathan Aberman correctly points out that Silicon Valley itself was fueled early on by military and NASA requirements for products pioneered by Fairchild Semiconductor and its many offshoots. (The original company in San Jose, not the one in Portland, Maine is typically put at the top of Silicon Valley genealogy charts.)

Silicon Valley today isn’t inclined towards selling to the federal government as a business goal. And, as local venturist Mark Walsh points out, big bets on tiny companies without revenue and serial business failure are common in the Valley .In the D.C. region, business failure and loss of investors’ money is less forgivable. Plus people who bootstrapped a company, got government contracts and have some sort of cash flow aren’t accustomed to the idea of ceding control to a V.C. More evidence of the big cultural divide.

All new companies, regardless of origin, face the same hurdles in selling to the government, the panelists agree. Ghosh says there’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation to prevent a company from getting a contract within five days should an urgent need arise, but typically the bureaucracy plays it safe. Often for good reason. By the same token, the purportedly 18-month minimum sales cycle for a federal agency isn’t so far off what those same companies encounter when selling to the Fortune 500.

Not fully answered the other morning were these questions:

  • Does Silicon Valley really hold the scratch to the government’s technology itch? My take, yes and no. Of course there are companies originating in the Valley that could help solve federal mission challenges. It requires a great deal of research the selectiveness. Whether the Pentagon needs a mini-Pentagon off U.S. 101 is debatable.
  • Does the government overlook the acres of diamonds in its own back yard? I don’t think so. Invincea itself is a case in point. Lots of product and services companies got their start with federal requirements, and not just items unique to the military.

In Silicon Valley, people start companies with an idea, and expect the world to join in. No one realized there was a better way to hail a taxi cab. But Uber — we’ll stretch the Valley to include San Francisco — became a valuable company,  billion dollar unicorn, in Valley parlance, without owning a single car or employing a single driver. But a mobile app will never get a human to Mars, or destroy an cutthroat enemy, or analyze a half-trilliion-dollar federal program to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Given the size and diversity of its missions, the government needs to talk to entrepreneurs everywhere.

Five Steps For The Government To Regain Trust

March 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Last month the Obama administration rolled out something called the federal feedback button. Officials describe it as a Yelp-like way for people to give feedback on the online service they get. That is all well and good. People visiting federal websites should have a good experience, easy to navigate and returning the results they seek. I think for the most part they do. Still, you can never have too much feedback. Sites vary. Some are still tough to navigate, others are right up there with the best of them. Some adapt perfectly to mobile devices, others have yet to be redone with responsive, mobile-aware coding. But on the whole, people responsible for federal web sites care a lot about their work.

One goal of the federal feedback button puts a little too much on the shoulders of web managers. Specifically, the notion that better digital service and gimmicks like a website button can help restore faith in government. A lousy web experience might reinforce the notion that government is incompetent if a visitor is inclined to think that way. Most people take a poor web experience for what it is — a poor web experience. To make an analogy, I’m highly loyal to the brand of car I drive. The company’s website is over-engineered and precious to the point of being annoying and hard to figure out. But that shakes my faith in its web people, not in the car.

Distrust of government stems from problems way deeper than digital service. All you have to do is scan the last few weeks’ headlines to see examples of what makes government sink in citizens’ estimation. None of these sources of mistrust will be remedied with the federal feedback button.

Nor will they be fixed with simple-minded assertions about the efficiency or motivation of the federal workforce. Good people working in bad systems will produce bad results. The way to better, more trustworthy government tuns through fixing the systems and processes, and funding them adequately. Then you’ve got the tools necessary to hold people accountable.

Here are my five picks for systems that need fixed to restore faith in government.

1. Fulfill FOIA requests. How many more decades must pass before federal agencies figure out a way to answer Freedom of Information Act requests within days or hours, and then fulfill most of them? A default to secrecy and withholding clings stubbornly. Just a month ago the Center for Effective Government came out with another dreary accounting of agency FOIA performance. The open data movement, exemplified by data.gov and the hiring of a chief data officer at the Commerce Department are fine moves for helping untrap the government’s vast stores of data. But FOIA performance is a powerful indicator of how open the government is with respect to information people demonstrably want.

2. Get serious about not wasting money. $124 billion in improper payments for fiscal 2014. That’s two years worth of Overseas Contingency Operations budgets. Three years of operating the Homeland Security Department. Four years of the Energy Department. It’s around $350 for every American. The administration deserves credit for diligent efforts over the last few years to push improper payments down. But it’s like trying to suppress in your hands a balloon that’s connected to an air source.

3. Remind high (and low) officials to think before they act. A secretary of state used a rigged-up server to do four years of federal business then erases the whole thing. The deputy DHS secretary is found by the inspector general to have improperly intervened in staff work regarding visa clearances, on behalf of politically connected-individuals. A member of Congress spends $40,000 of somebody else’s money decorating his office. The Justice IG can hardly keep up with all of the misbehavior at law enforcement agencies. Not all the people in these episodes are bad or evil. Alejandro Mayorkas contends that, in the case of the visas, he was expediting stalled applications. He has a distinguished record of public service, but golly, I wish he’d stopped for just a sec and looked at the expediting from a poor taxpaying schlub’s point of view.

4. Stop writing badly-worded laws. Like the VA overhaul bill that gives veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option of using private health care. Congress wrote in a provision telling VA to use geodesic measurement, meaning a 40-mile radius drawn by protractor around each VA facility. But people don’t drive like a crow flies, as Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson pointed out at a hearing. The whole thing made VA look goofy. It bewildered veterans. And it limited the utility of an expensive program. Now they’ll use online maps to calculate 40 miles even though that’s not really what the law says. Sloppy.

5. End backlogs. Good service means speedy service. Veterans Affairs has a first-time-claims claims backlog of about 245,000. That’s a sharp reduction from its peak, but it’s not likely to disappear, even though the department has promised a zero backlog by the end of the year. Social Security’s disability claims backlog runs close to 1 million. The Patent and Trademark Office, the backlog runs to more than 600,000. The people handling all of these claims aren’t lazy or incompetent. But they’re working in a system that makes them look that way.

The administration favors challenges and crowd-sourcing of ideas. Here are five persistent problems that, if rectified, would significantly increase faith in the competence of the government, and by extension, the people who work for it. These conditions persist not because government employees are bad or don’t care. It’s because they work in a culture that avoids risk an makes easier to say no to an idea than it is to push it through to completion.

So, Federal Senior Execs To Get Nods For Customer Service

December 21, 2014 1 comment

When President Obama deigned to meet with members of the Senior Executive Service and other managers earlier this month, some three thousand of them showed up. Not a lot of new ideas rolled out, but the old “customer service” idea resurfaced. Specifically, the still-to-be-developed idea of giving some sort of award or bonus to SESers whose agencies deliver excellent customer service.

This notion goes back a while. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they called it service-to-the-citizen. That was before online services came along, but the idea of government services equal to what people get from the private sector took hold. Notwithstanding that customer service in many areas of the private sector stinks, the idea has endured. Nowadays, the comparison mostly refers to online, and to some degree, telephone service. My comment on that is, the newest form of customer service, online chat, is something the government ought to explore more. I’ve resolved many a technical issue with neither e-mail (rarely any good) or telephone (it depends) by using chat.

I remember a one-star Army general who retired and went to work for a large software company, working in its federal division. At an editorial retreat I held for one of my magazine staffs, he was a guest speaker. He got a lot of laughs when he said, “I was trained to break up things and kill people! Now I’ve got to learn to delight the customer!”

I’m not sure what “delighting the customer” might mean for services from the government, but the latest online trend seems to be a hybrid of online transactions executed flawlessly, together with what they used to call high touch, individual-to-individual followup. It’s actually not that new. Six or seven years ago I ordered occasional computer parts from CDW, and the e-mail receipt always had the signature of a real person with a direct phone number.

Let me tell you about a really delightful commercial experience I had this month. Having been a four-eyes since the age of six, I’ve bought many a pair of glasses. I did contacts for 30 years, but gave up on them because of the discomfort and the tiresome routine. A couple of years ago I bought three pairs of glasses from a storefront shop — two contrasting styles for daily wear and retro-looking sports glasses for running (think Kareem Abdul Jabbar). The three pairs cost me more than $2,000. The store provided fine services, if you back out the schlep of driving there twice and parking, and waiting in the store for help. Recently lost of of the pairs, Ray-Ban frames, and I realized I couldn’t read a computer screen with any of them. It was affecting my broadcast delivery. I could see closeup and far away, but not that magic 18-24 or so inches.

Having read about the online glasses phenomenon, I decided to risk it. Long story short — the outfit sends customers five pairs to try on. I e-mailed them a picture of my fancy-shop prescription together with a selfie with a credit card held under my nose, pressed against my upper lip. This wan’t the payment system, it was how the retailer could figure out the distance between my pupils, since the credit card is a universal, fixed distance. Get it? The prescription I had was for so-called progressive lenses, bifocals with out the little line in the middle. The optician there extrapolated the single focus prescription.

I felt I was taking a risk, but at only $99 for frames and coated lenses, I felt if was a tolerable risk if the glasses turned out junky. I’d only be out a c-note. The glasses arrived a few days later in the mail. This after a couple of clarifying e-mail exchanges from an actual person at the retailer.

Amazing! They are perfect. All frames, including the fancy designer names, are made in China. These were imitations, privately branded, and as nice as anything in the storefronts. The glasses arrived inside a soft drawstring bag, inside a hard clamshell case. Nothing cheap about them at all, but a third the price I’d have paid at the shop connected to my opthalmologist. Most important, I can see a computer screen finally. I ordered a second pair — this time with only a couple of mouse clicks since their system remembered me. Not only that, the same person with whom I’d corresponded sent me a chocolate bar in the mail — with a handwritten note! of thanks!

For me, that’s the new “delightful” bar for great customer service. The federal government isn’t going to send chocolates. But it can, with the right resources and focus, reach the kind of service that makes people say, “Gosh, that worked out pretty good!”