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Understanding the Biden Customer Experience Executive Order
A practical plan to make government work better
On December 13th President Biden signed an “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.” This is a long and meaty EO with a lot going on, so in this post we (welcome Pam Herd!) break down what its means.
Why does this matter? Some big themes
A landmark in attention to administrative burdens. In remarks at the EO signing Biden noted that:
bureaucracies assume that people understand how they function. But it’s, really, a very complicated web for the vast majority of people, whether they have PhDs or high school educations.
This is fundamentally correct. Bureaucracies lack natural mechanisms to monitor and fix the burdens they impose on the public. We’ve built such mechanisms for regulation of businesses, such as cost-benefit analyses, which calculate the cost and benefits of any new bureaucratic requirement. We need to do the same for the public.
This is the first Executive Order (EO) that is centrally focused on administrative burdens for members of the public.1 It asserts that: “Government must be held accountable for designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve." Thats a huge sea-change in putting people at the center of how we think about government services and benefits.
The Biden administration has been targeting administrative burdens in official guidance to agencies since February, relying on legal authority created by Biden’s inauguration-day social equity EO. The new EO creates a stronger legal basis for such efforts, and is more likely to outlast the Biden administration since it is framed as a bipartisan “customer experience” theme rather than Biden’s social equity agenda.
A green light for good work and new research. Energy and political attention are finite qualities in government, especially for good government reforms that don’t have a natural constituency. Without high-level support, most administrative initiatives go nowhere. The Biden EO empowers those in government interested in fixing concrete problems. It encourages stakeholders to bring those problems to the attention of the government. This includes an overlapping set of actors with common interests - the civic tech community (see this excellent profile on this group) as well as those interested in human-centered design and administrative burden.
This green light also encourages a lot more research. This is good. Federal agencies generally don’t have permission to try new things that might fail. The new EO encourages research using “experiential data (including, as appropriate, through randomized controlled trials or other rigorous program evaluation); ethnographic research; feedback from public engagement; human-centered design methodologies such as journey mapping; operational and administrative data analysis; direct observations; examination, from a customer perspective, of how to navigate the agency’s service offerings, apply for a benefit, or comply with a requirement of the agency; observations of customer interaction with the agency’s website or application processes and tools; or observations of customer support service delivery such as activities at call centers.”
In short, this order requires that we evaluate changes to make sure they actually reduce burdens and improve the experiences thatAmericans have when they use government services or benefits.
A different approach to customer service. The idea of prioritizing customers is not new - you see variations of it in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, and the new EO cites some of these efforts. Such efforts and the terminology of “customer” in particular have turned some people off: aren’t we all citizens, not customers?2
This critique argues that a focus on “customer service” leads to certain blind spots. For example, it might neglect the people who don’t try to become customers, even if they are eligible for public services. It might also cause governments to focus on individual experiences and nudges, and neglect root-cause structural factors.
While such blind spots are a possibility, they can’t be blamed on the text of the EO. The Biden approach—on customer experience not customer service—is distinct in its emphasis on reaching those normally missed by government:
Government must also work to deliver services more equitably and effectively, especially for those who have been historically underserved. Strengthening the democratic process requires providing direct lines of feedback and mechanisms for engaging the American people in the design and improvement of Federal Government programs, processes, and services.
By connecting people’s experience to human-centered design and administrative burden, the Biden administration is less likely to be vulnerable to such blind spots. For example, the EO’s emphasis on removing requirements such as in-person interviews or physical documentation comes from research on how this barrier excludes people, rather than measuring the customer satisfaction of those that receive services. Similarly, the emphasis on automatic-enrollment reflects a focus on tracking those who don’t get services.
Furthermore, the EO encourages agencies to look for root causes of problems, including laws and rules, as well as agency interpretations of such, which is often more onerous than needs be.
Consistent with the purpose described in section 1 of this order, agencies’ efforts to improve customer experience should include systematically identifying and resolving the root causes of customer experience challenges, regardless of whether the source of such challenges is statutory, regulatory, budgetary, technological, or process-based.
No wrong door. The EO sets out a goal to simplify the process of interacting with federal websites via a digital “Federal Front Door” that allows users to quickly find key benefits, services and programs within 1-3 clicks. This is sometimes referred to as a “No Wrong Door” principle. It tries to reduce learning costs and ensure that people don’t give up because they can’t navigate confusing websites.
Moments that matter. The EO directs attention to big agencies and programs, but it also frames effort to fix people’s experience of government around key moments in people’s lives. Some of these moments might be mundane or predictable - retiring, traveling, or paying taxes, seeking funding for a small business - and some are extraordinary and stressful - experiencing food insecurity, having a child, or experiencing a disaster. People usually need help from multiple government providers at such moments, but might be feeling too overwhelmed to figure out the different offices they need to navigate. Thinking about government services through the lens of how the public experiences such moments makes it more likely that they can be structured in a way that makes them more accessible.
An ongoing governmentwide set of routines. The EO institutionalizes a set of routine interactions within agencies, and between agencies and OMB, who have primary responsibility for both helping agencies and holding them accountable for living up to the demands of the EO. This is how lots of federal management processes work. Key requirements:
OMB must routinely “select a limited number of customer life experiences to prioritize for Government-wide action to improve customer experience”
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs must propose ways to reduce paperwork burdens on the public
The leaders of 35 “High Impact Service Providers” who engage with the public must designate specific areas for improvement, and report back to OMB each year with results and new targets
Agencies are required to embed customer improvement efforts into existing strategic planning and performance reporting processes that are required by law, helping to ensure that these reforms are not seen as distinct from existing performance management requirements
Data-sharing and cross-agency cooperation as solutions. The EO requires that federal agencies work together to reduce burden. Many of the recommendations, such as automatic enrollment and pre-populating forms, require that agencies share data and information. In short, an agency like the Social Security Administration will need to not just help people in Social Security programs, but also consider how to help those same individuals have easier access to other programs.
For example, here EO directs the Social Security Administration:
to the maximum extent permitted by law, support applicants and beneficiaries to identify other benefits for which they may be eligible and integrate Social Security Administration data and processes with those of other Federal and State entities whenever possible.
This is so important because the Social Security Administration has data on individuals—ranging from their employment and earnings to their number of children—which can be leveraged to ease enrollment in nearly every social welfare program administered by the government. This includes programs like SNAP and WIC, as well as the new Child Tax Credit and Medicaid. Indeed, take-up rates for SNAP are strikingly low for older adults—around 40 percent—which is largely a function of administrative burdens. The Social Security Administration could do significantly more to help older adults enroll.
To try to ensure that agency co-operation takes place “the Director of OMB shall work with the head of each relevant agency to help resolve issues related to overlapping responsibilities among agencies.” In addition, multiple agencies are being pushed to look for ways to improve data-sharing, including with state and local governments.
Within 120 days of the date of this order, the Administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within OMB, in consultation with relevant interagency councils (including the Chief Information Officers Council, the Federal Privacy Council, the Chief Data Officer Council, the Evaluation Officer Council, and the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy), shall coordinate their current, respective efforts to develop guidance for agencies, ensuring that such guidance incorporates opportunities to:
(i) improve the efficiency and effectiveness of data sharing and support processes among agencies and with State and local governments; and (ii) streamline the process for agencies to provide services to State and local governments, consistent with applicable law.
Specific solutions to known safety net barriers
In addition to laying out big themes about how to run federal organizations, the EO offers 36 specific and demanding asks of 17 agencies to remove barriers. This comes on top of existing efforts within specific agencies, like making it easier to seek student loan forgiveness. The new EO promises to reduce hassles for tasks like renewing your passport, moving through airport security, or getting a call-back from the IRS if you phone them.
The point is that this reform agenda is not about serving a specific policy or population, but a broad-based effort to improve people’s experience of all types of government services. That said, we are especially interested in social safety net burdens. So too is the Biden administration given its focus on social equity. So let’s focus on some big pushes here.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees programs that ensure food security, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program and the National School Lunch Program, is required to expand the use of ‘direct certification.’ In short, children who are receiving SNAP benefits must be enrolled in the school lunch program without requiring additional paperwork for parents. Ten states do not currently meet the federal target (95%) for enrolling children receiving SNAP into the free and reduce lunch school program. Medicaid data could also be employed to enroll eligible children not currently receiving benefits, in part because the eligibility for the National School Lunch Program, like Medicaid, is broader then is the eligibility for SNAP.
The Department of Agriculture is also directed to also ease burdens the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This includes looking for ways to simplify enrollment and recertification, but also to make the benefit easier to use. Parents on WIC are allowed to purchase some goods, but not others, which can lead to embarrassment in stores if they try to buy an incorrect product or brand. It also can just make it difficult to shop—with fickle requirements that make it hard to buy needed groceries. The EO pushes online WIC purchasing, allowed during the pandemic, which should reduce learning, compliance and psychological costs.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid and Medicare, is required to “ensure eligible individuals are automatically enrolled in and retain access to critical benefit programs” for both federal- and state-administered HHS programs. We wrote about Wisconsin’s experience with automatic enrollment in the Medicaid program and how it ensured enrollment for people who needed those benefits.
HHS is also directed to identify a specific list of requirements to reduce other known barriers to eligibility. For example, the EO requires that HHS “streamlin[e] State enrollment and renewal processes and remov[e] barriers, including by eliminating face-to-face interview requirements and requiring prepopulated electronic renewal forms.”
Requiring people to appear in-person for interviews has a substantially negative effect on program take-up. It is especially burdensome for people in low-wage employment who lack flexible schedules, reliable transportation and more generally can’t afford not to work.
Increasing the use of prepopulated forms also has a substantial effect. For example, one study found that prepopulating student loan repayment forms led to an average reduction in monthly payments of $355. The potential impacts of prepopulating forms for Medicaid, for example, could be very large, both in terms of take-up, but also simply in reducing peoples’ stress and frustration, and giving them back time.
What’s next? Implementation time
The EO is in place, so what happens now? It’s implementation time, when the wheels of government turn, or not, toward the vision of the Biden administration. Implementation will play out on two different fronts. First, there is the immediate and short-term specific tasks that the EO enumerates - can agencies really get them done? Second, there are the ongoing governmentwide initiatives that will, hopefully, become embedded into normal federal processes.
Presidential pressures to perform light a fire under agencies, but they can also become their own form of administrative burden if they become a box-ticking exercise. There will undoubtedly be variation between agencies in how well they do. Looking from other areas of public management research, its a safe bet to assume that variation will be shaped in no small part by:
Agency leadership commitment to the reform, which tends to be higher when leaders see the reform as instrumentally useful in helping them achieve other goals. The EO pushes agency heads to identify specific areas of improvement.
Agency culture: Is the existing culture focused on user needs? For many agencies, this will require building a new culture, requiring techniques like new training or creating success stories.
Consistency: reforms fall away if employees think they are a passing fad, and are more likely to succeed if employees see them as a permanent way of doing business
Stakeholder support: agencies stakeholders can either increase the salience of fixing administrative problems, ignore, or undermine them
Capacity: agencies need the human and technical skills to do what they are being asked. In many cases, this means making new investments in capacity. For examples, it is hard to imagine the IRS both improving customer service and making electronic tax filing easier without significant new investments.
Who do we thank for all this?
Ultimately, changes in government services are not a function of any single person. We were pleased to draw attention to this topic with our research, along with a host of other folks in public administration and public policy, behavioral science and civic tech. (If you are a public policy scholar, now is a great time to do practical applied work that federal policymakers will read, or even work directly with them).
There is a whole community of good government folks who have been pushing for improvements. See this thread of threads if you want to get their perspective and follow some cool thinkers about government.
A number of journalists have consistently drawn attention to a topic that was anything but sexy, helping to put it on the policy agenda. Hat tip to Matt Yglesias, Annie Lowery, Catherine Rampell, Natalie Shure, Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz. Really hope there is ongoing attention to the success stories that (we hope) follow.
Finally, there are two groups without which this would not have happened. One is federal employees, especially career officials, who are anonymous to the public. Cynicism about government is often merited, but you should know the federal government includes some really impressive people looking for chances to fix government, are genuinely excited to do so, but rarely get the credit they deserve. They have been trying to implement these ideas since the beginning of the Biden Administration, and in many cases well before, either in government or in non-profit communities. Special praise is merited for the aforementioned Amira Boland, living proof that a single person can make a difference in government.
The second group responsible is the voting public. The new EO would not have happened under the Trump administration. Indeed, the Trump administration approach to governing was close to the opposite, deliberately using burdens to make government services harder to access. Whether government services for the public should be simple and accessible is an area of real philosophical and practical difference between the two parties. The majority that voted for Biden provided the essential factor that institutionalized an approach to better government. While its unlikely that the EO will achieve its stated goal of fixing declining trust in government, it is a reflection that even amidst distrust, elections really do matter for the quality of government.
Special thanks to @pamela_herd for joining me for this post.
It is not the first EO that mentions administrative burden in the context of individual encounters with government. In EO 14035, which dealt with diversity equity and inclusion issues for federal employees directed officials to “take steps to reduce any unnecessary administrative burden for transgender and gender non-conforming and non-binary employees to update their names, photographs, gender markers, and pronouns on federally issued employee identity credentials.”
Of course, lots of users of government services are not citizens.