Top OMB official: Agencies need to untangle ‘morass of data’ to improve customer service

The Trump administration has big plans to improve the government’s customer service and modernize its technology.

The President’s Managment Agenda, which the Office of Managment and Budget rolled out in March, made those priorities clear. And in some cases, those goals overlap.

But Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at OMB, says better customer service means more than just modernizing IT.

“It’s not about the technology, it’s about what’s going on with the customer,” Weichert said Tuesday at an ACT IAC summit on improving customer experience.

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During a recent listening session with Veterans Affairs Department employees in Kansas City, she learned the value of simple, yet effective customer-centric design.

“When we sat down in this conference room where we met with some veterans, there was a little sort of gift in front of us. It was a gun lock with a suicide prevention number on it,” Weichert said.

By comparison, Weichert said a recent initiative by the U.S. Digital Service to give FitBits to depressed veterans and track whether they were moving or not was a little “operationally intense.”

“What the people closest to the customers on the front lines of keeping veterans alive realized was that most veterans suicides happen with handguns, and that a gunlock would put a pause in between a very sick and in pain individual and an action that might end his or her life,” she said.

While technology isn’t always the solution to the government’s customer service problems, Weichert said overhauling agencies’ vast array of dot-gov websites should better direct users to the services they’re looking for.

“The business of the federal government is to serve the American people, but we cannot perform with outdated technology, data capabilities, and we’re not setting up our workforce to meet public expectations,” she said.

Weichert says at one point, the suicide hotline call centers whose numbers were posted on VA websites were receiving a surge of calls about password resets.

“The fact that we didn’t have automated password resets on most of the disparate web properties meant people needed to figure out how to get back in to find out about their services,” she said.

The most prominent number on many VA websites is a suicide hotline, which Weichert said led to the agency’s call centers receiving a significant number of calls about password resets.

“Not only is that a horrible experience for the individual calling in, but it’s a deadly experience if somebody actually needed a human being to be there to take that call,” she said.

Steering veterans to the services they’re looking for online remains an ongoing challenge for the VA. In 2015, it launched Vets.gov, a one-stop shop meant to consolidate nearly 1,000 government websites.

While Vets.gov has been held up as a model for improving federal websites — USDA copied the idea and recently launched Farmers.gov — Weichert said it’s been a challenge getting veterans to visit the site.

“When we look at the actual around the number of people hitting Vets.gov, it’s still a fraction of the overall number of veterans hitting any veterans website. We have a long way to go,” Weichert said.

Understanding customers at USDA

The Trump administration has invested heavily in making Agriculture Department a model agency when it comes to 21st-century customer service.

The General Services Administration, together with OMB and the Office of American Innovation, are working to stand up five Centers of Excellence at USDA aimed at overhauling the agency’s IT infrastructure and its customer service.

Weichert said agencies like USDA need to address the boring but necessary work — like data hygiene, taxonomy and open standards — if they ever hope to get to the “cool stuff,” like artificial intelligence and robotics.

“We can’t see our way through the morass of data. We can’t draw insights from this data. We can’t make experiences better, but it’s just a mess, it’s a total mess,” she said.

In listening sessions, Weichert said farmers have expressed complaints about USDA’s inability to get its arms around its data.

“We’ve heard farmers tell us, ‘My Caterpillar or John Deere tractor, which is a million-dollar piece of equipment, has a GPS link. So I know, to a 10th of an acre, what I have planted. Your maps are wrong, so I’m buying crop insurance for things that aren’t crops — they’re roads or underpasses.’ We get GPS data — GPS data is used in everything from Pokémon Go to Uber, but it’s not used in our USDA crop insurance operation. That needs to change,” Weichert said.