Great expectations: How US government agencies can meet public demand for better service

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Most everyday consumer experiences have become highly personalized and digitized over the past few years, from shopping online to banking to communicating with companies. However, many consumers’ experiences with government have not reached that level. In fact, in recent surveys, federal government services rank near or at the bottom in customer experience ratings, with most customers rating their experience as “poor” or “very poor.”1

While government leaders can apply private-sector best practices, public-sector organizations face a unique set of challenges. These include a vast scope of services to be modernized, a variety of stakeholders with different needs and constraints, complex funding and procurement mechanisms, and legacy technologies that may not support current customer experience (CX) goals. In this environment, it can be challenging for government to deliver customer experiences that match the expectations set by leading consumer companies. But the imperative for government leaders to address those obstacles and deliver the services Americans rely on has never been more important. Since 2020, through pandemic response funding and major new investment, the US Congress has appropriated over $5 trillion to expand existing programs, launch new ones, and digitize government. In December 2021, the White House issued a historic Executive Order on transforming customer experience in federal agencies.2

As part of an effort to explore how government agencies approach CX and how users perceive their service delivery, we conducted a survey of 30,000 Americans in February and March of 2023 to assess their experience with more than 40 federal government services and the five “life experiences” prioritized in the 2021 executive order. The services come from high-impact service providers (HISPs)—entities that have a large customer base or substantial impact on the customers they serve.3 “Life experiences” refers to critical moments in people’s lives (such as having a child or recovering from a disaster) where they may need to navigate multiple government websites and forms to access critical services4.

The results of our survey may help leaders of HISPs achieve their bold commitments to reducing the administrative burden or “time tax” that customers experience while completing necessary tasks such as filing taxes, accessing benefits, or using government data.5 Our research is the first of its kind to suggest where agencies might get started and what changes the public would most like to see to reduce the customer burden associated with using government services. This study builds upon our “state of US states” research, which assesses customers’ experience of state government services and enables government leaders to see the full CX picture, especially for federally funded state-administered benefits. Since many users of public services and benefits are typically not concerned with which government entity provides them, we focused not on individual agencies but on the actions relevant to leaders’ responsibilities in their roles. In this article, we suggest some ways for government executives to prioritize changes that could have the greatest impact on improving service delivery. Leaders can gain insights from questions answered by the research, such as the following:

  • Solutions. What types of solutions could my agency focus on to improve satisfaction?
  • Customer burden. Which aspects of customer burden (for example, clarity of information and redundancy of forms) should my agency focus on to have the greatest impact?
  • Specific pain points. Is it best for my agency to invest in improving a specific step across journeys (authentication, for example) or a full end-to-end journey?
  • Trust. How does satisfaction correlate with trust in my agency and/or anxiety for those needing services?
  • Inclusivity. What are the differences in experience for different groups, particularly underserved communities? How do we ensure an equitable experience?

1. Varying customer satisfaction

Using OMB Circular A-11, section 280 definitions, we evaluated satisfaction differences across categories of government services that were similar for the customer journey.6 The complexity of using a government website (informational category) is different from filing taxes (compliance) or applying for disability benefits (benefits). Customers report the lowest satisfaction with services that fall into the benefits or compliance categories and with life experiences—experiences that touch multiple agencies, such as recovering from a disaster or experiencing a financial shock. A full list of government services can be found in the appendix at the end of this article.

Our research reveals five key insights:

  1. Performance improvement is possible, even amid the constraints in government. A 27-point spread persists between the highest and lowest CX scores for federal services, with some services setting the bar for others.
  2. Experiences vary across communities. Despite satisfaction improvements, there are still significant inequities for people of color and low-income communities. This gap doubles for life experiences compared to individual services.
  3. Better customer experiences can help rebuild trust in government. An increase in customer satisfaction correlates with both increased trust in government and decreased anxiety regarding government services. For leaders seeking to improve trust in institutions and help decrease anxiety, improving customer experience can be a practical place to start.
  4. Customer burden is driven by information gathering. More than 50 percent of customer burden is associated with finding the right information and clear communication from the government. Providing redundant information also contributes to customer burden.
  5. Digital self-service solutions can improve customer experience. While all channels (ways of engaging) need to work, our survey participants overwhelmingly want easy and comprehensive digital solutions. Six of the most preferred solutions are related to self-service, which digital technologies make much less expensive than call centers and in-person service.

Our research also looked at satisfaction with specific steps in a customer’s journey with government services (such as learning about a service, applying for a service, or using a service). This data revealed insights into what the government could prioritize across the holistic end-to-end journey, especially when a customer is interacting with multiple services, such as within the five life experiences defined in the executive order. Two key archetypes emerged that may help agencies focus their efforts:

  • A single service’s end-to-end journey
  • A specific journey step (such as applying for benefits) across multiple services

Most federal government services' customer satisfaction ratings lag those of the private sector.

Satisfaction with federal government services has improved over the past 12 months compared with the two years prior.
Satisfaction with federal government services has improved over the past 12 months compared with the two years prior.

Young, low-income, and underrepresented groups are less satisfied with federal government services.
Government support across life experiences is more challenging for marginalized demographics.

For each percentage-point increase in customer satisfaction, trust in federal agencies increased by as much as two percentage points.
For each percentage-point increase in customer satisfaction, anxiety caused by dealing with federal agencies decreased by around 23 percentage points.

Finding information and lack of clear communication are the biggest drivers of customer burden for nearly all services.

Satisfaction drops across the board when it takes longer than one month to receive a benefit or service.

Customers would be most satisfied with digital, self-service solutions that allow them to quickly and easily complete tasks.

2. Low life-experience service scores

Life experiences are significant events or transitions that may require interactions and touchpoints with multiple federal agencies and even various levels of government.7 A person may seek government support for anything from questions about taxes or starting a small business to a sudden or urgent requirement, such as needing food and housing after experiencing a natural disaster. But all too often, people find it difficult to navigate a complex maze of government services and institutions to find the specific information or services that they need. The life-experience framework enables different government agencies to work together to deliver a simplified and streamlined customer experience. In particular, services for five critical life experiences are targeted for improvement:

  • Approaching retirement
  • Birth and early childhood for low-income mothers and children
  • Facing a financial shock and becoming newly eligible for critical supports
  • Navigating the transition from military service to civilian life
  • Recovering from a disaster

Our research gathered participant feedback on all five life experiences to explore customer burden, expectations of good government, and questions about public awareness and use of the specific services within each life experience. Overall, our respondents indicate that interacting with the government over the course of an end-to-end life experience is a worse and more burdensome experience than seeking individual services, suggesting that there may be gaps in programs, disconnected systems across agencies, and difficulty in finding information when multiple services and benefits are needed.

Facing a financial shock is rated the most burdensome life experience across the five and also scores lowest in satisfaction. Similar to individual services, finding information and a lack of clear communications are the largest drivers of customer burden, with redundancy of forms to be completed also contributing to the burden. Recovering from a disaster and facing a financial shock both exhibit significant dips across all services in the “apply” stage of the service, whereas other life experiences reveal more variance in journey steps across services.

Customers approaching retirement were most satisfied, while those facing financial shock had difficulty navigating government services.

Finding information and lack of clear communications are the biggest drivers of customer burden across most life experiences.

Expectations for good government vary across life experiences, with some life experiences better meeting expectations than others.

Life experience results indicated two different satisfaction archetypes.
Government services customers are least satisfied with life experiences and services that fall into the benefits or compliance categories.
Life experience results indicated two different satisfaction archetypes.
Life experience results indicated two different satisfaction archetypes.
Life experience results indicated two different satisfaction archetypes.

3. Biggest customer pain point: Getting help

Respondents evaluated 41 individual services as part of our research. The actions involved for customers varied in nature from seeking information to applying for critical benefits, and fell into the following categories:

  • Administrative: Requesting or renewing items that do not require an extensive eligibility determination or multi-stage review processes
  • Benefits: Applying for or progressing through more complex government processes to determine the eligibility and degree of a benefit
  • Compliance: Completing the actions required
  • Recreation: Utilizing public spaces such as national parks, historical sites, or museums
  • Informational: Providing knowledge-based resources to the public such as releasing warnings, requiring disclosures, or providing health recommendations
  • Regulatory: Providing clear guidance to support commerce, transportation, employment rules, workplace safety, and public safety; and enabling reporting of grievances

Customers were asked a series of in-depth questions for services they had interacted with in the past three years. Their answers revealed the following insights:

  • Benefits and administrative services caused the most anxiety, but respondents ranked regulatory services even lower in terms of meeting their expectations that government agencies should offer simple, seamless, and secure services, and also that the government agencies themselves are not meeting their own expectations of the services they offer.
  • When respondents’ expectations of good government were explored further, getting help surfaced as the biggest pain point—and their experience of obtaining the necessary help within reasonable wait times was lower than their other expectations across nearly all services.
  • When usage of services was compared with satisfaction, populations with the highest rates of government service utilization (for example, low-income and underrepresented groups) were less satisfied with their experiences.
  • Similar to life experiences, respondents were asked to indicate satisfaction with specific steps throughout the user journey. When journeys for a specific agency were compared, the two archetypes emerged here too: Some agencies had a specific service that scored lower across the board than other services, while other agencies had a specific journey step (such as applying for a benefit) that had low satisfaction across many or all services delivered by that agency.

With some variation, services that fall within the compliance and benefits categories generally have fewer satisfied customers.
With some variation, services that fall within the compliance and benefits categories generally have fewer satisfied customers.

Respondents from low-income and underrepresented groups tend to use government services more often, but their satisfaction is often lower.
Respondents from low-income and underrepresented groups tend to use government services more often, but their satisfaction is often lower.

Some agencies may want to focus on improving the end-to-end journey, while others may want to look at a single journey step across multiple services.

4. Seven steps to better CX

Overhauling CX in government can seem a daunting task. While the benefits of doing so are clear, it is challenging for agencies with limited resources, diverse stakeholders, and myriad objectives to commit substantial funds to deliver better experiences for customers.

That said, there are clear steps that leaders of government agencies and organizations can take to begin to move the needle. To start, leaders can choose an end-to-end journey or a specific step of a journey and stand up a new cross-functional team with the exclusive mandate of addressing that objective. Leaders across government may find material and measurable progress against CX objectives can happen within the first year using this approach. It can serve as a starting point for a broader CX transformation that is often done in tandem with a technology modernization effort if required.

Seven guiding principles emerge through examination of successful public-sector CX improvement programs:

  1. Understand the customers’ current experience. A subset of services or specific steps in a user journey can often drive the bulk of impact when it comes to the customer experience. By combining available operational, contact center, and financial data with customer experience data collected through surveys and interviews, the main challenges to be addressed can be uncovered and prioritized.
  2. Redesign the customer experience using human-centered design. By understanding what customers want, need, and feel at each step of the journey, organizations can reduce risk at the idea-generating stage to ensure that every action taken has a positive impact on the user experience.
  3. Execute on quick wins to gain momentum. By identifying a small number of highly feasible, high-impact priorities on which to get started, successful execution of two or three “proof of concept” quick wins can build skills within a delivery team while ensuring early impact for customers. Quick wins can include a number of initiatives, such as creating a checklist for users to guide them through their benefits application and collection of the necessary documents.
  4. Validate and refine the redesign using an agile approach with iterative testing and prototyping. Create agile teams to deliver against each priority service, journey, or life experience.8Better and faster: Organizational agility for the public sector,” McKinsey, April 14, 2022. Teams should reflect the cross-functional nature of how journeys are delivered to and experienced by customers (including policy, operations, design, technology, communications) and should comprise the organization’s top talent. Some critical capabilities (such as design and product development) are sometimes not found in public sector organizations; in such cases, obtain new skills and talent where needed. Empower these teams to engage customers directly throughout their design and delivery of solutions—such as through ethnographic research, focus groups, and usability and acceptance testing—to ensure that the offerings are genuinely meeting customer needs. Solving for the most underserved users often generates benefits for all.
  5. Translate the redesigned journey into implications for the organization, including operations and technology systems. Redesigning the customer journey can also improve back-end operations and processes for an organization, freeing up staff time previously spent on routine tasks to focus on complex customer needs that require individual attention. For each initiative that addresses a CX challenge, leaders should consider the implications for all stakeholders that the initiative will affect. For example, if an organization plans to allow customers to text photos of materials for identity verification, it could make sense to implement an automated system to assess the quality of the pictures so that call center workers do not need to contact thousands of customers personally to request better photos.
  6. Invest in adoption and change management. “If you build it, they will come” isn’t necessarily true in the public sector—many customers face access barriers that require deliberate attention to overcome. Successful government agencies actively promote new solutions to achieve their desired CX, operational, and reputational outcomes. This involves having a well-defined communications and change-management plan (including training) for both internal and external stakeholder groups.
  7. Incorporate CX measurement into the day-to-day operations of the agency. Be clear about target outcomes and how they will be measured—sample metrics include customer satisfaction scores, a decrease in calls to the call center, or a reduction in end-to-end processing time. Sponsors should focus on what outcomes teams will deliver and empower the teams to define the how. Establish a baseline for these measures both quantitatively and qualitatively to identify where to get started for maximum impact. Measure value delivery against outcomes rigorously and continuously so that the effects of new initiatives can be detected and assessed quickly. Leverage these insights to inform decision-making around what to start, what to stop, and where to continue investing in the future.

Public sector leaders face unique challenges on the path to improving CX. Shared ownership of life experiences services across departments, diverse stakeholder groups, competing mandates, aging technology, and constrained access to critical skillsets can encumber government organizations as they seek to improve the services they provide. The first and most important step is to understand what customers want. The steps that follow should focus on meeting those requirements by designing an easy, seamless, and rewarding end-to-end customer journey.


Service categorization

Based on categories as defined in OMB Circular No. A-11


Requesting or renewing items that do not require an extensive eligibility determination or multistage review processes


Applying for or progressing through more complex government processes to determine eligibility and degree of a benefit


Completing required actions


Utilizing public spaces such as national parks, historical sites, or museums


Providing knowledge-based resources to the public such as releasing warnings, requiring disclosures, or providing health recommendations


Providing clear guidance to support commerce, transportation, employment rules, workplace safety, public safety; enabling reporting of grievances


  • Obtaining a replacement social security card
  • Using Direct Express for digital benefit payments
  • Manage and access IIM
  • Trust probate process
  • Search for jobs/training on CareerOneStop
  • Apply to jobs at USAJOBS
  • Access info/resources/financing on
  • Manage IRS account
  • Schedule appointment at US Citizen and Immigration Services office
  • Get a passport


  • Applying for Medicaid
  • Applying for Medicare
  • EQIP assistance
  • Farm loan
  • OneRD Guarantee Loan
  • National flood insurance claim
  • Federal student aid
  • Public service student loan forgiveness
  • Apply for disability benefits
  • Get federal retirement benefits
  • File immigration benefit form
  • VA education benefits
  • Decision review for VA claim
  • In-person outpatient VA care
  • In-patient/acute VA care
  • Retirement benefits
  • WIC benefits


  • Respond to American Community Survey
  • File taxes
  • Complete 1-94 customs form
  • TSA passenger screening


  • Finding info on
  • Access census data
  • Visit and look for opportunities on
  • Get info from FHA on loss mitigation
  • Use EBSA website to maximize retirement benefits
  • Get help from TSA by phone, email, online


  • Plan trip to refuge or fishery
  • Explore national park using app
  • Make reservation on
  • Get special use permit from US Forest Service


  • File housing discrimination complaint
  • EEOCIP compensation or medical benefits
  • File a trademark
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