An American flag is posted on a fence in front of a dry unplanted field on August 8, 2014 in Lodi, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Providing services to citizens, businesses and other organizations is integral to the missions of most federal agencies, but many are falling short.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures customer satisfaction across sectors and industries, the federal government ranks lower than nearly every private-sector industry measured, and that includes the airlines and cable television companies.

Some of this unhappiness is due to the difficulty people have navigating federal Web sites, highlighting the strong impact that digital services can have on overall customer satisfaction.

Just this month, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald decried the large number of often confusing sites the agency currently operates, noting that there are “14 different Web sites that require a different username and a different password for veterans to access the VA.”

“That's just flat wrong," McDonald said.

In a new report by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Accenture, it was pointed out that federal services are often arranged and delivered based on the structure of government and its bureaucratic silos rather than around the needs of customers.

For example, government delivers a wide array of benefits and services to low-income families, but these services are organized in a complex web. They are structured according to the funding appropriated to specific programs and located in different agencies scattered across the government, making it hard for the citizen to navigate the complex maze.

The bottom line, according to the report, is that citizens should not have to understand and navigate a complex hierarchy of departments, agencies and offices to receive benefits or services and jump through unnecessary hoops. To the greatest extent possible, they should feel like they are interacting with a connected entity rather than divided and isolated organizations.

The report, “Serving Citizens; Strategies for Customer-Centered Government in the Digital Age,” highlighted several Web sites that have organized services according to the needs of the customers, including Recreation.gov and DisasterAssistance.gov.

The Recreation.gov site is a collaboration among 12 agencies that provides a single portal for citizens to access a wealth of formerly separated recreation opportunities, ranging from obtaining camping and wilderness permits to tickets for events at the National Archives. DisasterAsssistance.gov streamlines the processes of applying for disaster aid by sharing customer data across federal agencies.

Of course, improving service delivery is much more than creating revamped and better organized Web sites. It requires leaders at all levels to take a fresh look at the many ways their agencies interact with the public, and examine what the citizen encounters and must got through to receive services.

If problems exist, it is incumbent on leaders to take steps to streamline transactions, improve processes, develop new standards for high-impact services and use technology to improve the customer experience. The end result could not only be better service, but could have the added benefit of easing the burden on federal employees, saving time and improving productivity.

Among the ways agency leaders should look to improve customer service are:

Coordinate services across organizational boundaries. Recognizing that citizen needs often aren't isolated to a single agency, federal agencies can greatly improve services by better collaborating to serve shared customers. This is not always easy, but it is a critical component in making government services more accessible.

Assign key leaders to monitor and improve customer satisfaction. Several federal agencies have already established senior leadership positions responsible for understanding the experience of their customers and communicating customer perspectives to senior leadership. This strategy helps ensure that agencies are in tune with the citizens they serve.

Use cutting-edge technologies. New tools can help agencies more effectively manage processes, people, interactions and content, and meet ever higher customer expectations. Agencies should embrace this shift and adopt technologies when possible.

Build systems and services incrementally based on customer feedback. Agencies too often have fallen into the trap of spending several years and millions of dollars developing complex systems that are not responsive to the needs of their customers. An incremental approach to building customer-oriented systems, ones which continually incorporate customer feedback, ensures that systems are developed with the end user in mind.

Foster cultures of excellence. Because improving services to citizens often requires a shift in agency culture and business processes, federal leaders should support customer-service initiatives with clear change management and internal communications strategies. Agencies can institute awards to celebrate customer-service achievements and establish communities of practice around customer service.

Please share your stories regarding government service delivery and how agencies can improve. You can post a comment below or send me an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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