Redesigning public-sector customer experiences for equity

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Racial inequities in the United States have been well documented. In 2016, the median white family had more than ten times the wealth of the median Black family. Black Americans have also been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher rates of health and economic disruption.

There continues to be evidence that these inequities are reflected in Americans’ experiences with public-sector services, which can also result in different outcomes. For example, a study conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that 43 percent of the time, white applicants to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) received more favorable treatment than their Black counterparts.1 These types of experiences can perpetuate inequitable socioeconomic outcomes and damage trust in public-sector institutions. Indeed, in 2019, Black Americans were half as likely to report that they always or most of the time trust the government, as compared with white Americans.2

McKinsey’s research on customer experience in government has further highlighted that different groups have disparate experiences with the public sector. The roots of bias and inequity in public-sector services are long-standing and complex—and beyond the scope of what customer experience can address in and of itself; however, focusing on customer experience is one way that government institutions can begin to bridge the equity gap.

Data suggest that customer segments vary both in how they experience applying for and receiving different government services and in how they value the services. For instance, Black Americans have significantly worse experiences than other Americans when applying for and receiving Medicare coverage (Exhibit 1). And while Black respondents report comparable experiences when applying for and receiving Social Security disability benefits, Black respondents value these benefits significantly more.

Black Americans experience and value services differently than the general population.

Decision makers should consider these nuances in satisfaction across groups when redesigning services to help governments work better for all.

Assessing customer journeys3 with an eye toward how users of different races and ethnicities experience them can help decision makers identify the most significant and consequential equity gaps in current customer journeys. This examination can reveal the subjourneys and experience drivers that produce inequity. For example, Black customers of job services in one state place outsize value on workforce reentry but report receiving less courteous service and less useful information, compared with average survey respondents (Exhibit 2).

Black residents in one state report receiving significantly worse service while seeking job services.

Decision makers can use such insights to inform the redesign of customer journeys, prioritizing interventions to better serve historically marginalized communities. In areas where governments do not directly administrate services, they can consider how to manage and collaborate with service providers to promote change that increases equity.

A three-phase process can help organizations translate insights into intervention designs and—ultimately—organizational change:

  1. Figure out what matters. Decision makers can use customer data and customer-experience-tracking tools and methods to isolate the factors that produce or perpetuate inequitable experiences for customers based on race or ethnicity. They can also identify the experiences that have the largest equity gaps and most potential to drive impact for communities of color. Specifically, public-sector stakeholders can gather a large set of user-sentiment data through surveys and focus on comments from historically marginalized users. They can conduct follow-up qualitative research to further unpack how and why experiences for these customers are coming up short and differing from those of their white counterparts.
  2. Redesign experiences to reduce the equity gap. After identifying areas to focus on, decision makers can apply inclusive, human-centered design to transform customer experiences and begin to address causes of inequity. Depending on customer research findings, a vast array of interventions might be considered—from redesigning processes and forms, optimizing communication channels, augmenting employee training, and de-biasing algorithms to leapfrogging some barriers altogether with digital and automated solutions. For example, one financial services company successfully grew its Latino customer base after tailoring its customer experience, including increasing distribution in Latino supermarkets and accessibility of bilingual staff. Institutions can rapidly iterate on possible interventions, continuing to incorporate customer feedback throughout the design process, in order to improve the customer experience.
  3. Implement interventions to address inequity. Finally, organizations should take operational action to directly address the shortcomings of the experiences of historically marginalized customers. Rather than—or in addition to—inclusion or sensitivity training, organizations can build targeted capabilities that address the specific parts of the customer experience where marginalized groups are underserved. For example, a private healthcare system found that redesigning certain care-delivery strategies to be more culturally responsive decreased the disparity they had identified in hypertension rates between white and Black patients. Following pilots of new designs across one or two customer journeys, the approach can be scaled to systemic interventions and additional government services. By harnessing transformation tools, including change-management best practices and embedded metrics and reporting, organizations can sustainably deploy a broad intervention effort.

Customer-experience tools can help government entities improve the delivery of existing services that matter to the public—especially historically marginalized people. In addition, when introducing new services, government entities can take a customer-centric approach with a racial-equity focus to intentionally design these services with everyone in mind. This approach can help governments reduce inequity and improve outcomes for all populations.

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