USDA aims to become ‘faster, friendlier and easier,’ without more funding

The President’s Mangement Agenda tasks agencies with improving the way they offer services to the public, and next year, the White House will recognize federal employees who excel at meeting that goal.

At the Agriculture Department, Secretary Sonny Perdue has made improving customer service an all-hands-on-deck priority, as he did while governor of Georgia.

Joe Doyle, the director of the Office of Customer Experience at USDA, and the former head of Georgia’s Office of Consumer Protection under Perdue’s tenure, said he expects the agency can make its services “faster, friendlier and easier” without asking for additional funding from Congress, or without much help from the private sector.

“We will be making changes, not relying on very detailed plans for funding requests. We will simply be getting better results with existing resources. We’re more about empowering the employees and modifying the processes that do not require a lot more money. Our movement is employee-led,” Doyle said Thursday at the Partnership for Public Service’s annual customer experience summit in Washington, D.C.

Advertisement

Responding to the Trump administration’s push to improve service, the USDA has tasked its agency heads to appoint “customer experience champions,” whose full-time job is dedicated to improving service. All told, the USDA has appointed 40 customer service champions.

On Wednesday, USDA held the fifth biweekly meeting of its component champions.

“These champions are working together as a unit to solve the issues that we are talking about,” Doyle said. “They are driving this transformation throughout the nation.”

The agency has also stood up employee recognition and training programs, and has sought more feedback from field offices.

The Forest Service, for example, has customer experience champions field offices in Idaho and California, and have the responsibility of appointing sub-champions that will represent all nine of the agency’s subregions.

“We’re not trying to staff up and hire a whole lot of people here in Washington, D.C. We’re trying to tap into the talent that we have and empower them to lead, to learn and grow in this area,” Doyle said.

Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget shed more light on the administration’s plans to reboot the Federal Customer Service Awards that the Obama administration began in 2015.

Under the new “Gears of Government” awards, agencies will give out awards to their employees for exceptional customer service, and will be eligible for a presidential-level recognition in May.

But in addition to honoring the agency’s top performers, Doyle said all USDA employees need to be on the same page with overhauling customer service.

“Every employee must see themselves in the picture. They need to be asked, they need to be valued. Do they need to be talked to in terms of, ‘How can we help you at the front line interaction level?’ It’s not that hard to do, you just have to have a strategy that is executed across the entire enterprise.”

In May, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) introduced the Government Customer Service Accountability and Improvement Act, which would set benchmarks for agencies to meet.

“What brought me to the point of doing a customer service bill is to empower the agencies to be able to improve what is a very, very, very negative perception of the federal government within the populace of the United States,” Loudermilk said Thursday. “Something has to change if we’re going to change the American people’s perception of our federal government.”

Private sector raises the bar on customer service

The Trump administration doesn’t just want agencies to step up with customer service game — it also wants them to catch up to the private sector.

“We made a lot of improvements to make it so people could have a more Amazon-like experience,” a standard that other agencies have attempted to emulate. “You’re being compared to, ‘Alright, is this as easy as my ordering online?’ We want to make sure that, hopefully, you can find the information you need about your health care choices as easily,” said Kimberly Brandt, the principal deputy director for operations at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Every day, Medicare adds about 10,000 new enrollees. By 2030, the program will balloon from about 50 million recipients to 80 million.

In addition to handling a larger customer base, Brandt said CMS will also have to adapt to the way Americans expect to receive services

“Those are enrollees who have a whole different idea of what they want out of Medicare than the people who are currently on it. So we have to be thinking about how we react to that and adapt as we have to those ever-changing demographics, and as we continue to get an ever-increasing Medicaid population,” she said.

While the demand for digital services in government is growing, CMS continues to field millions of calls a year. Brandt said HealthCare.gov receives nearly 3 billion visits annually, while its call center handles about 24 million calls a year.

This year, satisfaction with HealthCare.gov’s call centers rose to 90 percent, up from 85 percent the previous year.

Meanwhile, Medicare.gov receives 670 million annual visits a year, while its hotline handles 3 million calls. Its call center satisfaction rose from 90 percent to 94 percent.

CMS has also reduced the average wait time to its call centers by about 10 seconds, which Brandt said doesn’t seem like a lot of time, “But when you’re on hold, it feels like an eternity.”

VA seeks feedback from vets

In order to better understand how users interact with the Veterans Affairs Department online, Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington and his team reached out to a veteran who tried to apply for health care online 10 times, but was unable to do so.

For his 11th try, the VA team recorded video of the veteran’s interaction with the website.

“That video changed more about the way VA thought about itself, and the way IT thought about itself than almost any strategy deck, PowerPoint or expensive study could have ever done,” Worthington said.

In addition to improving its websites and apps, Worthington said the VA needs to improve the veteran’s whole experience with the agency.

Over the last year, VA has rolled out a system that sends out text reminders to veterans’ cell phones reminding veterans about upcoming appointments.

Each year, veterans miss more than 9 million appointments at VA medical centers.

“Obviously, a missed appointment is a missed opportunity to serve a veteran that could’ve had an appointment,” Worthington said.

Under this system, the VA has sent out 18 million appointment reminder texts, and 300,000 patients have canceled their appointments.

“They got the message, they realized they couldn’t make it, they replied to the message saying, ‘I can’t make that anymore.’ That’s 300,000 appointments that now a different veteran can use,” Worthington said.