How U.S. Government Agencies Can Fix Their Customer-Service Problem

How U.S. Government Agencies Can Fix Their Customer-Service Problem

Low-income residents are key to restoring trust in U.S. government. Residents in the U.S. earning less than $25,000 a year are a staggering 18 percentage points less likely to be satisfied with government services than higher-earning residents. To fix this, federal and state governments can improve accessibility and reach of their services (for instance, a quarter of low-income Americans don’t own a smartphone). They can also empower residents to engage by stripping complex language and jargon from their communications. Focusing on customer experience has an amplifying effect. A recent McKinsey study found that “a gain in average customer satisfaction of one percentage point is associated with an increase in trust in state government of 1.3 percentage points on average, and up to 1.5 percentage points in some cases.”

Public trust in government is at a historic low, influenced in part by rising inequality, political polarization, the impact of climate change, and macro-level economic downturns. In our collective decades of public service, we’ve witnessed this erosion firsthand. And while governments around the world are grappling with a deficit in public trust, recent research from McKinsey, in partnership with Qualtrics, shows declining government trust in the U.S. is most acute among low-income residents. According to the study’s findings, low-income residents in the U.S. earning less than $25,000 a year are a staggering 18 percentage points less likely to be satisfied with government services than higher-earning residents. This is especially concerning given that these are the precise individuals most likely to need and rely on government services.

But low trust in government also has a negative impact on business. High public trust is strongly linked with economic prosperity: countries where businesses, governments, and other institutions have engendered more trust yield stronger per capita real GDP growth, business investment, and productivity. A cornerstone of trust in government is customer experience: states with higher rates of customer satisfaction also share higher levels of trust and voter participation, as well as lower cost-to-serve and lower risk of negative public coverage or commentary. Yet previous research has shown satisfaction with government services ranks last when compared to private-sector industries.

Our research and experience working with hundreds of governments around the world suggests a first step in improving customer satisfaction and rebuilding trust in government, is to focus efforts on high-impact opportunities to drive overall satisfaction — whether it’s critical services like access to unemployment insurance, or improving experiences for specific groups where satisfaction is lowest. Low-income residents, already facing immense challenges, such as the rising cost of living and inflation, are an important starting point in addressing the deficit of public trust in government.

In this article, we outline a three-pronged approach that state, community, and business leaders should consider in improving customer satisfaction: make government interactions accessible, empower residents to engage, and rebuild public trust in government.

Of the People: Making Government Interactions Accessible

The mandate of government is to serve all citizens, residents, and visitors equitably and fairly. To do this, governments must better understand and address the causes underlying disparate levels of customer satisfaction and when and why certain groups and communities are more likely to have negative experiences with their government. According to the McKinsey report: “Even when they are able to access services, [marginalized] groups may struggle to use formats that were not designed with their specific needs or experiences in mind.”

To address this inequity, U.S. states can improve accessibility and reach by designing more consistent and convenient delivery channels. Across all 50 U.S. states and 21 services, 60% of residents report a strong preference for digital channels, compared with 30% for phone and 27% for in-person. Yet, nearly 80% of residents reported having to switch channels multiple times throughout the course of their journeys.

For low-income residents, these challenges go far beyond convenience. A quarter of low-income adults report not owning a smartphone, potentially a major barrier to them reaching necessary government services. And while government digital transformation efforts are making strides toward greater technological and digital accessibility, they may ultimately further exclude low-income populations who may not have reliable or easy access to digital devices or internet. Residents may need more or different support to use digital channels effectively, such as access to affordable, high-speed internet service, devices, and higher levels of digital literacy. Additionally, with almost half of Americans reporting not having access to public transportation, accessing government services in person is increasingly difficult.

To provide better customer service and rebuild trust in the communities where it is lowest, governments need to make services more accessible and meet residents where they currently are. This means using methods like human centered design to gather and apply feedback from residents to fully understand the barriers they are facing. Whatever the technique, public servants will be on the front lines of making trust stronger — or not. Investing in government employees’ capabilities in customer experience is a first step to building trust. It is also critical to diversify the workforce to help residents see themselves reflected in the diversity of their public servants. Having a visibly diverse workforce is a powerful way to show residents and communities where trust is low that their government is truly “of the people.”

By the People: Empowering Residents to Engage

Alongside complex channel switching, governments are also notorious for using complex language and jargon in critical public communications, like explaining the eligibility criteria for government benefits and services. Using this type of administrative language risks alienating residents, making it difficult to navigate the processes required to access programs and services. Making government programs and services more accessible and equitable requires not only using better channels of communication, but also language that those it serves can readily understand.

Ensuring communications are written in plain language can help government reach all of its residents, as well as provide those it serves with digestible, navigable information. It also ensures residents are better able to give feedback, helping government continually improve and iterate on its customer experience. This is especially important for residents of varying education levels and language proficiencies. In the U.S., approximately 54% of adults between the ages of 16 and 74 years old are assessed as having literacy levels below a sixth grade level.

When residents understand government communications, and are able to navigate the processes to access programs and services, they are empowered to engage with their governments and take initiative to seek the government services they need — a critical step in rebuilding public trust in government. And residents who experience more positive interactions with state services are more likely to engage in civic life: the McKinsey research indicates a nine-percentage-point difference in voting behavior among customers who are satisfied with state services compared with those who are not.

Better experiences with government services also saves taxpayers money. McKinsey finds that “more satisfied customers make fewer phone calls to state contact centers and, in many cases, fewer in-person visits to field offices. By converting dissatisfied customers to satisfied customers, states could see a marked drop in incoming calls and a commensurate increase in the use of lower-cost channels (for example, digital)” — which is 40 times less expensive than in-person service delivery. Lowering the cost to serve makes good business sense — for government agencies, for taxpayers, and for the service recipients.

For the People: Building Trust in the Government

Governments at every level — federal, state, and local — have an opportunity to rebuild public trust at a time when it is at a historic low. With inflation and cost of living prices soaring, more people than ever are relying on their governments for support, especially low-income residents who have been among the hardest impacted by these vast global economic and social shifts. With better listening and engagement across communities — through clear, plain language communicated through the channels residents can access and readily use — governments can better serve all communities and improve customer satisfaction.

Focusing on customer experience has an amplifying effect. The McKinsey study found that “a gain in average customer satisfaction of one percentage point is associated with an increase in trust in state government of 1.3 percentage points on average, and up to 1.5 percentage points in some cases … suggest[ing] that some states could see trust among constituents double by improving customer experience.”

For business leaders, the link between government trust and economic growth and development is clear. In creating better experiences for those it serves, governments also foster an environment in which business innovation and national economic development can thrive. National and global economies, and the businesses that contribute to them, cannot grow in an environment of political and social instability. Investing in stable and effective government is not only a critical risk management strategy for businesses, but an investment in the future and a signal of a vibrant, innovative community in which to live and work.

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