Three keys to strengthening citizen trust

Citizen trust in the government is near an all-time low. The President’s Management Agenda (PMA), released March 20, not only acknowledged this issue—it calls out the government’s poor performance overall as the key reason for this lack of trust.

The PMA indicates that the federal government suffers from outdated regulations and technology, siloed agencies that don’t collaborate, and a failure to use data to inform decisions. To remedy the government’s performance problems, the administration proposes a multi-generational, mission-driven plan with three main components of change: better information technology, better use of transparent data to drive decisions, and a modern workforce capable of using tools and executing missions in today’s agencies.

The plan acknowledges that trust is directly tied to citizen (or customer) experience (CX). The PMA also focuses on improving CX, continuously improving operations, and changing the type of work completed by public servants from “low-value,” repetitive work based on outdated policies to more “high-value” work that focuses on achieving mission outcomes.

Essentially, the PMA acknowledged the lack of citizen trust in government and set out a roadmap for improvements across government, including customer experience.

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Government agencies can follow the map and work to regain citizen trust by re-aligning organizations and their goals, listening to citizens and making changes based on their feedback, and communicating more clearly.

Strengthen trust by organizational alignment

While trust itself is a complex entity, creating trust is a skill that can be learned. In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey examines several different types of trust: self, organizational, market and societal. He posits that organizational trust is based on alignment: “All organizations are perfectly aligned to get the level of trust they get. If your organization is not reaping the trust benefits it desires, you need to look at your structures and your systems.”

Strengthening citizen trust in government, then, begins with agency leadership. If leaders create citizen-centric missions tied to the overall agency mission of building positive citizen experiences, they will create stronger citizen trust in government.

First, leaders must ensure that when they undertake a mission to improve CX, all employees are on board to fulfill that mission, no matter their role in the organization. When that agency-wide CX mission becomes a system of shared values and behaviors across the agency, it has become an agency’s culture.

While leaders set the goal and the pace for the mission and ultimately the culture, employees are the front line in improving citizen trust. They need to have a sincere understanding of citizen journeys and expectations. This understanding can come from a variety of sources. Many agencies use journey maps and virtual training to help employees understand exactly what citizens need when they contact agencies. These tools are particularly helpful for contact center employees who interact with the public on a frequent basis.

In an ideally aligned agency, with employees working toward the same mission in a citizen-focused culture, citizens will receive consistent answers no matter which person or channel they interact with. Citizens will then more readily trust an agency. Overall CX will improve, and citizens will notice.

Strengthen trust by listening to citizens

The government recognizes that building trust with citizens can require significant changes in processes and the ways that agencies connect with the public. The PMA outlines ways that the federal government has already started putting theory into practice. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) volunteered to serve as the “lighthouse agency” for the newly created IT modernization centers of excellence (CoE).

In addition to the USDA’s modernization plans, the agency also launched Farmers.gov, “a streamlined, single point of online access to agricultural programs and information, tools and personal advice for America’s farmers, ranchers and private foresters.” The customer-driven website delivers information, tools and advice and serves as a portal for locating real-time, in-person service centers. The site is being built and updated with input from those who use it most—farmers, ranchers and private foresters.

The USDA is improving on steps already taken by other federal agencies to put listening to citizens at the center of the CX mission. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is using feedback provided by patients to directly educate the web content team and NCI scientists about patient experiences and needs in understanding and searching for clinical trials. Their goal is to make it easier for the public to find information and use NCI’s online clinical trial tools.

In response to low CX scores, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) built a training and quality assurance program that directly feeds an improvement lifecycle. The CMS program lifecycle measures the quality of citizen interactions, using well-defined quality standards, measures and tools to identify trends and problems. A rigorous calibration process ensures that all evaluators are implementing quality measures and scoring consistently, so that contact center agents receive consistent, correct feedback on the quality of their interactions.  Continuous improvements to training and content are also implemented in CMS’ contact center operations.

In all of these scenarios, changes and improvements were made by listening to customer feedback and predicting citizen needs. Listening to feedback from all touchpoints, from contact center representatives directly, and through quality assurance processes are concrete places to start. Prioritizing actions for improvement based on what matters most to citizens and addressing their biggest pain points are key steps in rebuilding trust.

 Strengthen trust by communicating clearly

Clear communication from the government is a key driver to improving customer experiences and trust in government. How can government agencies improve communication?

  • Examine websites, forms, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), other documents and written correspondence for language clarity and use of plain language. Are online instructions easy to understand? Do they tell citizens exactly what needs to be done, using simple language and clearly defined steps?
  • As legislative changes are introduced, ensure that plain language is used to explain the changes to citizens. Think: “What does this mean to the citizen?” Break explanations down into small chunks of information that are easy to digest and understand.
  • Don’t use jargon. Citizens shouldn’t need advanced degrees to decipher language and instructions. Complicated acronyms and terms can make agencies appear unclear and will not improve trust.
  • Ensure contact center representatives are trained and well versed in using clear language to communicate with citizens. Consistently evaluate social media responses, email correspondence and online chats for clear, direct and concise responses. Make sure that plain language communication quality measures are built in to quality assurance processes.
  • Establish a process or team to regularly review all customer-facing communications. Evaluate communication for consistent use of plain language and a professional and relatable tone.

Listening to citizen feedback and clear communication are key steps to predicting citizen needs as well as rebuilding citizen trust. The ability to create trust is the most important competency for any organization, which begins from the top in agency leadership. It is a learned skill that is not out of reach for any agency. Leaders must establish a culture of trust within their agencies and work to improve CX. Once CX improvement initiatives are underway, citizen trust in government will improve as well.

MaryAnn Monroe is the director of customer experience for HighPoint Global.