Focus on citizen experience to make lasting change in government

As the U.S. House of Representatives transitions to a new set of leaders, I can reflect upon my experience going through three Administration transitions as…

Keith Nelson profile picture
Keith Nelson

January 18, 20239 minute read

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As the U.S. House of Representatives transitions to a new set of leaders, I can reflect upon my experience going through three Administration transitions as a government employee. No matter which party was entering or departing the White House, one common phrase was uttered by the leadership team every time: “How do we make lasting change that will live on beyond our term in office?”

Early 2000’s CX: GovBenefits is Born

My first leadership posting in the U.S. government was as Deputy CIO for the U.S. Department of Labor some 20 years ago. I was tasked with a truly transformative technology initiative: To take the myriad websites where citizens can apply for government benefits –unemployment, student loans, public health services, social security, veterans support and food stamps – and consolidate them into one information portal.

It was a simple concept and easy to program – create an online questionnaire that users would fill out with their age, work status, military experience, income levels, etc., and provide a matching list of government benefit programs they may be eligible to receive. The questionnaire was anonymous, so no personally identifiable information was captured, easing security concerns.

It was easy to program but not easy to coordinate inside the government. When I approached partner government agencies to participate in this new concept of GovBenefits, they saw the site as a competitive threat. They were extremely reluctant to participate and said openly that there was no value in consolidating the benefits programs. This resistance came despite GovBenefits being listed as part of the President’s Management Agenda as a key e-government initiative, shepherded by the government-wide de facto Chief Information Officer.

Ultimately, we succeeded in overcoming those agencies’ resistance and produced a consolidated benefits site for citizens that was a true whole-of-government view containing information about thousands of benefit programs. The site was an instant success, generating a mention by advice columnist Dear Abby. The White House highlighted it, and the grumbling partner agencies received more online traffic to their sites via the GovBenefits questionnaire.

Twenty years later, the site is still going strong. That’s lasting change in government.

That experience taught me an important lesson – there is a sense of parochial inertia stemming from loss of control that exists at the government departmental level where there is mistrust and discomfort with working across agencies.

As OpenText’s global public sector senior strategist, I am seeing some examples of this changing – and other instances where those stovepipes persist. Clearly GovBenefits was created with the mindset that citizens will never– and should never– be expected to know how the government is organized into a complicated web of ministries, departments and bureaus.

There is a strong need for governments to keep up with the private sector. Forrester’s 2022 index ranking how well organizations in 13 industries manage their customers’ experiences puts government dead last, based on average industry scores.[i] It’s not satisfactory to the citizens, and government must do more.

New South Wales agencies cooperate to deliver citizen experience

A good example of government doing more is the New South Wales app. This is truly a whole-of-government approach, where on a single app the residents of New South Wales, Australia can access their digital drivers’ license as well as their driving record (and possibly pending traffic tickets),vaccination status, government-issued vouchers for meals and sports tickets, and tax refund status — all of which previously existed in a piecemeal fashion throughout different agencies.

NSW Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government Victor Dominello showcases the NSW Digital ID. Photo: LinkedIn

The benefits of governments improving their Citizen Experience index, according to Forrester[ii], is that each time a federal agency’s score increases by a point, 4.5% more people will say positive things about the organization; 2.8% more customers will trust the agency; 2.7% more will forgive the agency for making a mistake; and 1.9% more customers will do what the agency asks of them.

Government trust may be the most important factor of all – it is the only way to penetrate through social media rumors and misinformation to inform citizens about vaccinations, mandatory evacuations and other life-or-death decisions.

The #1 impediment to improving citizen experience: legacy systems

Governments tend to hold on to their custom-built, inflexible systems longer than reasonable under the assumption that they are good enough and “maybe next year there’ll be more budget.” But a lot of these systems are starting to break down under the sheer pressure of the modifications, customizations for new compliance rules and security patches that have accumulated over years. These systems tend to bloat budgets, especially as government adds people — usually in the form of contractors — to work around the problems.

Think about the New South Wales phone app, which does such a good job of providing so many citizen services in one place. How many legacy systems are involved on the back end trying to deliver those services? How efficient are things for the government staff trying to keep up with the citizen requests?

Legacy tech accounts for 50% of government IT spending in the U.K., in effect handcuffing decision makers and limiting their ability to prioritize annual spending or make an impact. When I was overseeing technology budgets in my government roles, I always asked my staff to provide an analysis of fixed Operations & Maintenance budgets and variable budgets – in other words where did I have true decision-making authority around technology? It always came out the same– I had a large budget for IT with a small amount of real authority. High responsibility, low authority – not a good formula for success.

Employee satisfaction begets citizen satisfaction

In addition to being enormously expensive, legacy tech opens government up to security risk and employee dissatisfaction. Where I have worked, employees are the ones suffering the most as legacy tech breaks down and critical systems go offline at the exact wrong time. Don’t let your savvy Generation Z staff join the Great Resignation looking for greener digital pastures.

For government employees, you have to give them excellent experiences as they transfer divisions, change beneficiaries, go through a government reorganization (in Australia, they call it a “machinery of government” shift), or as they migrate in and out of public service. The government mission is a powerful magnet for sharp people, but employment trends are shifting thanks to the pandemic, and governments must adapt to remain an employer of choice. The government workforce is likely to be in a hybrid model for the long term, so employee services must accommodate mobile devices and home-based networks.

What to do about all of this? Total experience

The answer for a lot of governments is to invest in streamlining and automating their back-end  technology, while investing in externally facing citizen portals and apps on a parallel track. “Total experience (TX) is an approach that combines the disciplines of UX, CX (inclusive of all government customers, residents, visitors, businesses and others), EX, and MX for a more holistic service design and delivery,” says Gartner®[iii]. “It represents a logical evolution in maturity away from CX or EX management in isolation toward creating shared and better experiences for people, regardless of what role they play inside or outside the organization.”

In a total experience mindset, public sector organizations view a piece of information in terms of a cradle-to-grave spectrum. Think about a piece of information that is captured – say, a person’s identity when they apply for a government job. You need to capture the identity of the job applicant– call this person Mary — through a job application online form, then when Mary gets hired she is assigned a pay rate, an email address, security clearance level, job responsibilities, a supervisor, staff, access to certain government records, a phone number, and learning modules to complete. As she works for this agency, lots of those parts start moving around. She might need specialized software permissions, her supervisor is replaced, or Mary needs to enter expenses for a conference. Throughout her experience, that information piece that is Mary’s identity will touch 30, 50, maybe a hundred different systems. Eventually Mary will leave that job, maybe retire from it, and her identity and all the related information subject to compliance rules will need to be archived.

That’s Mary’s employee record example. Now think instead about a case file, a grant application, a citizen benefit program, and you see the value of having a single source of truth around information that flows seamlessly through the various workflows and IT systems that need to use that information over its lifecycle.

Thanks to advances in low-code, cloud-based technology – with the ability for content to seamlessly transition from one system to the next – government stovepipes are breaking down. Total Experience can be achieved much more economically and rapidly than ever before.

A total experience approach allows you to move at speed and at scale. A Total Experience approach gives you momentum and the opportunity for organizations to learn from each other. This avoids risk, speeds time to benefit and lowers the learning curve – not to mention reducing the cost of consolidated training, system upgrades, storage and security.

Take it from someone who has been through changes in government leadership– technological innovation is the best way to make a lasting impact and set government up for success into the future.

Find out more about how OpenText is helping the public sector better serve citizens at Experience Platform for Cities.


[i] Forrester, The U.S. Customer Experience Index Rankings. (2022)

[ii] Forrester, The US Federal Customer Experience Remains Weak and Uneven In 2019. (2019)

[iii] Gartner: Top Trends in Government for 2022: Total Experience, January 18, 2022

GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

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Keith Nelson

Keith Nelson is Senior Industry Strategist for Global Public Sector at OpenText. He has more than 20 years experience working in public sector high-tech and management consulting and as a government appointee. His roles in government include serving as Assistant Secretary for Administration, Chief Financial Officer, and Deputy Chief Information Officer at multiple U.S. Federal Cabinet Agencies.

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