How Agencies Are Delivering Digital-First Services to Their Customers

This blog was originally published on Federal News Network.

Government websites receive more than 2 billion visits each month—a clear indication that the public demands agencies take a digital-first approach to their benefits and services.

Agencies are refining their approach to provide better service online, which is how most individuals prefer to engage with the federal government.

The Office of Management and Budget, in its recent guidance on delivering a “digital-first public experience,” said a majority of the public accesses government services online and that a growing segment of that traffic comes from mobile devices.

Erica Fensom, vice president of corporate affairs at DocuSign, said agencies need to prioritize some of the fundamental work that makes digital-first services possible.

“The way that we’re currently receiving information and services has fundamentally changed. Whether we’re buying a cup of coffee or car insurance, we expect a fast, secure and mobile-first experience,” Fensom said. “So what if we could experience those same benefits when applying for a permit or requesting housing assistance?”

By the numbers, agencies have room for improvement in delivering a digital-first experience.

About 45% of .gov websites have not been designed to work on mobile devices.  Meanwhile, only 2% of government forms are currently digitized.

“Modernizing forms is essential in any digital service strategy. In government, they’re usually the first step to someone obtaining a government service or benefit,” Fensom said. “Unfortunately, filling those forms out online can be a frustrating experience. If they’re not designed well, people abandon them.”

In a recent fact sheet on building better digital experiences, the White House said the public spends more than 10.5 billion hours each year completing government paperwork.

About $140 billion in potential government benefits goes unclaimed each year due to complicated or outdated processes.

Some agencies have started to offer PDF versions of their forms. Fensom said this is a “right step in the digital direction,” but still far from an optimal or digital-first experience.

“If they’re not mobile-friendly, they aren’t a great user experience for the person who’s filling them out or for the person who’s processing the information at the agency,” Fensom said.

Those PDF forms can create bottlenecks for agency employees, who often need to manually transfer the data into agency record systems.

“This slows the process and leaves room for human error,” Fensom said.

Delivering digital-first services amid pandemic

Congress directed agencies to prioritize a digital-first customer experience when it passed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) in December 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a digital-first approach to services as agencies scrambled to move their operations online.

“COVID really did put a spotlight on the need for agencies to provide better digital services, and agencies moved in that direction just out of sheer necessity,” Fensom said. “The pandemic also exposed just how much room there is for improvement for agencies to provide better digital services, and how agile government agencies can be to change.”

By taking a digital-first approach, the Department of Health and Human Services successfully administered $175 billion in grants to support families, workers, and healthcare providers. Congress made this additional grant funding possible through emergency COVID funds.

“They took a digital-first approach at how they were going to deliver this program and shortened the time it took to distribute grants,” Fensom said.

To build on progress made under 21st Century IDEA, OMB released recent guidance instructing agencies to design products and services with user experience in mind. That experience includes testing digital services to meet accessibility standards and incorporating the feedback of users through the design process.

“This is an amazing opportunity to take a digital-by-design approach in how they deliver services. And I believe there’s a huge opportunity for government agencies to create better customer experiences,” Fensom said.

To make public services digital-first, agencies are phasing out policies that require individuals to provide a physical, handwritten signature, provide paper documents or verify their identity in person.

“To the greatest extent possible, government should focus on the user experience and reduce friction in that experience,” Fensom said.

In place of those paper-based processes, agencies are implementing the 21st Century IDEA and are making the shift to electronic signatures.

“Signatures are a critical component of that moment of engagement; it’s important that experience is well thought-out, well planned, and safe and secure for your citizens,” Fensom said.

Beyond guidance and timeline for implementation from the White House, agencies are increasingly turning to the governmentwide Technology Modernization Fund to transform how they deliver services online.

“There needs to be an ability to upgrade legacy IT systems, bring in new solutions, and also work with industry partners to help implement the best-in-class solutions to allow better customer experiences when they’re interacting with government services,” Fensom said.

First steps to deliver digital-first services

DocuSign helps more than 5,000 federal, state and local government agencies transform manual processes into automated digital experiences. But some agencies are further along in optimizing their digital services than others.

Fensom said a good first step for those just getting started is to appoint a digital experience delivery lead.

“You need someone who’s going to take point on that digital-by-design strategy, with security in mind, to help set that vision for your agency,” Fensom said.

From there, agencies should review their top public-facing websites and “redesign with the user experience in mind.”

“Start with your forms and create web experiences, and then ensure accessibility for those experiences. As you’re doing this, it’s important to seek feedback from the public and also your industry partners. We can help guide you, in terms of the best practice for the best way to deliver those services,” Fensom said.

The latest OMB guidance also directs agencies to “meet people where they are,” and to provide important updates through the communications channels they prefer.

To meet that goal, Fensom said agencies should consider forms of communication the public most often uses. Individuals are 2.5 times more likely to read a text notification about their benefit status than an email.

“This is another opportunity for government to expand and think about how they’re delivering services and notifying their constituents,” Fensom said.

Watch Erica Fensom’s interview with Federal News Network: