To Successfully Rebuild USA.gov, GSA Needs to Better Understand the Customer Journey Across Government Services
There are around 5,700 federal government websites. Unfortunately—as an ITIF report from 2017 that looked at 4,500 sites across 400+ domains concluded—most are bad. And not much has changed in the years since. It’s one of the reasons the Biden administration’s December 2021 executive order (EO) focusing on transforming customer experience (CX) was so necessary, and why the General Service Administration’s (GSA) stated aim to transform USA.gov from a website that simply redirects users to other government websites to a digital “front door” that allows users to more fully access services is an exciting prospect. By employing an approach that evaluates the breadth of applicable services against the full spectrum of federal customers, GSA can deliver on this effort to reimagine USA.gov.
From the point of view of the typical federal customer—which includes individuals, businesses, and organizations (such as other federal, state, and local government agencies)—accessing the wide variety of government services across dozens of disconnected, visually distinct agency websites is challenging. A single-sitting user journey can be different to the point of jarring—like getting information from the thoughtfully designed COVID.gov and then navigating a few minutes later to the cluttered SSA.gov.
It's not difficult to understand how this fractured web experience developed. After all, the federal government is not a monolith. Agencies manage their multi-billion dollar budgets and operate a plethora of programs in a fairly independent manner. But in a world where customers demand streamlined digitized services, this poses a problem.
For many customers, the federal government is a single entity, and they expect the same kind of experience interacting with it as they do with their bank. Banks offer a variety of services, and most customers can do everything they need to through a single website or mobile app. Or for an example in government, consider the United Kingdom’s efforts to make GOV.UK a more seamless web experience across multiple agencies and services, including driving licenses, benefits, and visas.
The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA), passed in 2018, aimed to move U.S. agencies in this direction by requiring them to comply with website standards for new or redesigned websites using the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) that helps build and standardize “accessible, mobile-friendly government websites,” but many agencies still haven’t adopted USWDS for their existing websites and federal sites continue to operate across hundreds of different domains.
Fortunately, the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) within GSA recently announced its plan of “reimagining and rebuilding USAGov into a place where the public can complete their entire user-journey.” This effort addresses last year’s CX EO which tasked GSA to make USA.gov a “digital Federal front door” for all government benefits, services, and programs. As it stands, USA.gov is primarily informational, directing users to other government websites for services.
Given the focus on federal high-impact service providers (HISPs)—defined in the CX EO as 35 “key service providers due to the volume and types of benefits, services, and programs they deliver to the public”—this reimagining of USA.gov is a considerable task for GSA. The agency is currently developing a roadmap for this effort, but to truly succeed with the USA.gov rebuild GSA should consider employing service design practices.
Service design is “concerned with the design of services…to create value for customers in two ways: by improving the quality of the service offered and by improving the interaction with customers.” Federal HISPs offer a variety of services from Medicare and Green Cards to farm loans and duck stamps that customers mix and match according to their specific needs.
For TTS and USA.gov, service design planning means placing customers at the center of the USA.gov rebuild by performing research that understands user needs and pain points, developing blueprints that capture service delivery processes from the customer perspective, and mapping end-to-end user journeys to ensure the new USA.gov gives customers what they need across the complete breadth of HISPs’ services. The CX EO mandated the new USA.gov support “life events” and “moments that matter most” regarding how the public interacts with the federal government, and service design activities help identify and prioritize these moments for the USA.gov rebuild.
For example, user research will likely highlight the importance of smartphones for federal customers, particularly those in low-income brackets. As such, TTS may want to take a mobile-first approach to the USA.gov redesign and perhaps even develop a dedicated mobile app.
Additionally, expanding how agencies share data is critical for a governmentwide platform. Given the vastness of programs and associated eligibility rules across HISPs, USA.gov needs to be able to share user data and access information from dozens of sources quickly, accurately, and securely so that customers can get what they need and move on. Service design helps TTS to understand what information agencies require to provide (or not provide) users with services and encourages instituting a data governance strategy for the USA.gov redesign.
Finally, a service design approach promotes incorporating best-in-class functionality and products that improve customer experience. Many of these, such as chatbots and voice recognition, have been well-leveraged in the commercial space and can greatly improve a platform like USA.gov where users of all types may need in-flight assistance or troubleshooting due to the scope of services offered.
A USA.gov that offers users access to services in “just 1 to 3 clicks, taps, or commands from the USA.gov home page” would be a huge win in the ongoing digital transformation effort across the federal government. By incorporating service design principles in the planning stage now, TTS can adopt an approach for the USA.gov rebuild that is customer-centered and which ultimately improves how millions of people interact with government.