A recent initiative offers a “reset” button for agencies caught between competing pressures to innovate and deliver essential services.
Last update: 01/13/2022
The federal government faces a unique set of barriers to digital transformation. To protect the interests of citizens and the nation as a whole, agencies adhere to stringent security, privacy, and procurement policies. Those demands, in turn, can make it hard for federal agencies to support innovation, facilitate digital integration, and improve the citizen experience.
At the same time, the private sector continues to iterate at a rapid pace, continually finding impressive new ways to improve the customer experience. Tech giants like Amazon and Google are working around the clock to meet customer needs instantly—a tough bar for government to meet.
“Agencies can feel overwhelmed or as though they don’t have the ability to focus on modernizing or transforming their systems and infrastructure,” says our Senior Vice President Mary Schwarz.
According to Schwarz—who has more than 20 years of experience in digital and customer engagement, including web, social, analytics, and IT—the problem isn’t a lack of motivation or talent.
“They’re stuck maintaining what they have for fear of not being able to deliver certain essential services,” she explains.
Fortunately, an initiative by the General Security Administration (GSA) Centers of Excellence (CoEs) offers a targeted way to help agencies reconcile these competing interests.
"CoEs are dedicated to improving the citizen experience by accelerating IT modernization and reducing legacy IT spending across the government."
CoEs are dedicated to improving the citizen experience by accelerating IT modernization and reducing legacy IT spending across the government. At a more granular level, that means helping agencies get “unstuck” by addressing five critical areas: cloud adoption, infrastructure optimization, customer experience, customer service call center, and service delivery analytics.
“CoE teams can come in and give them a new point of view and a different set of resources to help move agencies forward,” Schwarz says. "It is a multidisciplinary, highly focused exercise led by specialized experts that work together. A modernization SWAT team, so to speak.”
"CoEs solve for the needs of a specific agency, rather than trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach."
One of the major benefits? CoEs solve for the needs of a specific agency, rather than trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. Culture, mission, process, and a slew of other factors can vary dramatically from agency to agency, so there isn’t really a single, standardized silver bullet.
Once the team has triaged and addressed underlying hurdles, the work is far from over. Next, they need to work with agency stakeholders to figure out how to make transformation sustainable (and realistic) in the long run.
Schwarz and her team are supporting GSA and the USDA, the first agency chosen to deploy CoEs, on the customer experience (CX) component of their transformation.
How digital transformation is evolving with a focus on CX
While our team has been supporting the CoE program since 2018, the U.S. government’s modernization efforts in technology and digital transformation continue to evolve, with customer experience becoming a top priority. In the video below, three of our team members—Anne Redding, Mary Schwarz, and Wendy Harman—discuss the importance of CX in IT modernization as well as strategies for building customer experience.
Anne Redding: And welcome. My name is Anne Redding. I'm a director of our digital delivery practice here at ICF Next Gov, and I also lead our GSA Centers of Excellence program. I am joined today with Mary Schwarz and Wendy Harman, and I'm going to turn over to Mary to do a quick introduction.
Mary Schwarz: Hey, Anne, thanks so much for having us here today. So again, I'm Mary Schwarz. I'm the division director for ICF Next Government, and in that role, I oversee the work that the Next teams deliver to a variety of clients, including the GSA Centers of Excellence. My background is, I'm a working technologist largely in digital and engagement, so I have been working around customer experience and designing customer experience programs almost all of my career. Wendy, will you tell us more about yourself?
Wendy Harman: Sure. Thanks, Mary. Hi, my name is Wendy Harman. I'm a senior manager for customer experience here at ICF Next and have had the pleasure and privilege of working on a couple of the Centers of Excellence projects, both at USDA and at HUD and also have a pretty extensive background in customer experience principles throughout my career. So thanks for having me.
The role of CX in an IT modernization strategy
Anne Redding: Great. So we're going to start off this conversation with a question on what is the role of CX in an IT modernization strategy? And I'm going to start with Mary.
Mary Schwarz: Thanks, Anne. So it's interesting. There's an adage that goes, we look to build the right thing the right way, and what customer experience methods and practices allow us to do is to really understand what the end user, that customer, is looking to achieve, why they're looking to do it, how they're going to go about it, and the different ways that they'll interact with the tool or the service.
Now from an IT modernization point of view, we take that and we reconcile it with the business goals. What are the outcomes that the organization needs to achieve? What are the barriers that they face when developing? And CX allows you to put a lens over that to ensure that your adoption and how you're actually building are going to work in a way so that you'll see improved adoption, getting user input earlier, you're refining some of those requirements earlier on and hopefully reducing their long-term development burden and a lot of the rework that we often see. Of course, Wendy, I'd love to hear your point of view on this.
"Customer experience allows teams to prioritize as number one, the needs of the ultimate customers of any given product, technology, or system and service."
Wendy Harman: Sure. I think I'll just build on what you've already said, Mary. I believe you sort of described the Venn diagram of where CX fits, which is customer experience allows teams to prioritize as number one, the needs of the ultimate customers of any given product, technology, or system and service. So being able to have the luxury of prioritizing that user first allows you to create the right thing in the right way that actually meets the needs of the people you're designing for.
Mary Schwarz: Absolutely.
Continuing to advance CX
Anne Redding: Excellent. So I know that ICF has been supporting the Centers of Excellence since 2018. Can you tell us how has ICF and the GSA Centers of Excellence been able to move the needle on CX? And we'll start with Wendy this time.
"So the Centers of Excellence, I think, are really planting an aspirational flag out in front of the overall government, anyway, when it comes to adopting best practices in customer experience."
Wendy Harman: Sure. So the Centers of Excellence, I think, are really planting an aspirational flag out in front of the overall government, anyway, when it comes to adopting best practices in customer experience. We've really been able to introduce the idea of a customer-centered approach to bringing together different program managers who maybe are serving similar customers in the end but haven't ever really talked to each other or looked at the journey from the customer's point of view all the way back to the federal government. And so really finding those parallel challenges and aha moments that happen when you first begin this mindset shift to looking at the customer first. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on this too, Mary.
Mary Schwarz: It's interesting because the first round of the CoEs really focused on a multidisciplinary approach, and it's such an advantage. So as we go through these discovery kind of sprints or periods where we're looking to understand the problem, to define it, to qualify it, understand what the current systems look like, where are their pitfalls? The CoEs were really structured to force all of those disciplines to work together so that you get a more holistic approach.
"So the notion of a discovery, then development, and then an ongoing maintenance is really built into the CoEs. It's a great way for the government to move forward."
What it also allowed some of the agencies to do is to really think in terms of those smaller steps of what can we do—what are the things that we can do immediately that will have impact, that will set us up for success longer term? And it also gave a bit of air coverage in that you're saying, you're trying, you're putting out there, that you're looking at modernization, so you're recognizing and responding to a need, but you're doing it in a really stepwise fashion. So the notion of a discovery, then development, and then an ongoing maintenance is really built into the CoEs. It's a great way for the government to move forward.
Impacts of the president's new management agenda
Anne Redding: So how will the president's new management agenda impact the adoption of CX across government? Mary?
Mary Schwarz: Oh, actually I would love to hear Wendy first on this, if you don't mind.
Wendy Harman: Sure. I think it's just really great to see this executive order and the president's management agenda. It gives sort of an overarching umbrella encouragement for agencies to really look at customer experience and start to think about who their customers are, really understanding their needs, building the services that are going to meet those needs, and then really measuring how well their programs and services and technology are really serving the public, and having that overarching encouragement and direction to actually look at things in this way couldn't be a better indicator that we're all moving in the right direction.
Mary Schwarz: Yeah. And I think it's interesting, Wendy, you're hitting on a couple of key points. There are current programs under A11 that are called HISPs, the High Impact Service Providers. So there's a set of agencies that have been looking at this and working on measuring and coming up with standards. What I love is that the new executive order expands that to the full government, where we're redefining who we think of as customers. We're thinking of how we treat employees as customers? How do we think of their experience in the workplace and their ability to do their jobs? So it really is that mind shift, but it applies to everyone. So it's forcing agencies that don't necessarily think of themselves as being citizen-facing to reconsider how are they working, who are they serving, and how can they do that more effectively?
Starting the CX journey
Anne Redding: All right. So what advice would you give to agencies or organizations that are just at the beginning of their CX journey?
Mary Schwarz: Yeah, that's such a great question. And there's such a variability in terms of maturity across the federal government. To me, it's really getting down to the fundamentals of where are your current pain points? Where are your teams struggling? How can you help them communicate better? And to look for those opportunities where you can apply CX principles to help you identify pathways to move forward.
"I think the key piece there is to keep it small and build momentum. Don't try to boil the ocean."
I think the key piece there is to keep it small and build momentum. Don't try to boil the ocean. And really, if you can't measure it, if you can't determine if you're making progress, then to seriously reconsider if it's worth moving forward, because if you don't have an endpoint that you can move toward, it's very hard. If you can't recognize that change, you might just be stuck in a bit of an endless loop. Wendy, love to hear your take.
"So if you're just getting started with customer experience, I think the first step is always taking a little bit of time to understand who your customers are."
Wendy Harman: Yeah, sure. So if you're just getting started with customer experience, I think the first step is always taking a little bit of time to understand who your customers are. So there's often, especially at the federal level, cascading levels of customers from federal employees to grantees to members of the public, and lots of entities in between. So understanding what that matrix and web of customers looks like and understanding, like Mary said, some of those pain points and really identifying some really small experiments you can do upfront, maybe even just starting to talk about customer experience and meeting a couple of other people across your agency who are also interested in it and figuring out what are some small things we could do to build that momentum and to show measurable success.
Anne Redding: All right. Well, thank you guys for joining us today and thanks everybody for listening. If you have questions about CX or how ICF can help support your IT modernization needs, please send us an email or reach out to any one of us on LinkedIn, and we're happy to help. Have a great day.
Mary Schwarz: Thanks, Anne.
Wendy Harman: Thanks, Anne.