Customer Experience in the Government sector: A Marathon not a Sprint


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What is your experience of government? Is this familiar when you travel? “you wait in line at least twenty minutes, pushing and shoving… staff… unhappy… people miss their flights”. If you travel by air, then standing in the security queue at the airport has to count as one of the most common customer experiences in the government sector. And one of the most dreadful, as Erik Pothuma recounts at

Why is it so bad? And there are few signs of progress… does no one care?

As a native Singaporean I have been studying eGov or electronic Government in Singapore since 2002. Then, as I live in the Silicon Valley, USA, I have been able to take an inside look at the Federal Government particularly in the Health sector. And in both Singapore and the USA I have met many smart and caring people in the Civil Service of both countries. I know thousands are working very hard to make things better, to take advantage of the Internet and new technologies: People who are passionate, committed and very dedicated to public service. What I have found is that it is difficult to change the practices of decades especially when, as in most governments, huge networks of businesses are intertwined with government in the delivery of government services. In the practice of CEM in Government, Inertia and Vested interests are the biggest enemy and we must properly prepare ourselves for how difficult the task will be.

The other day, I was working in my garden, where I planted some black bamboo about 15 years ago. If you are familiar with bamboo, you know that their roots are VERY persistent, very strong, and difficult to remove. So when I wanted to tidy up the garden and get rid of the roots that had grown in the wrong place, it took a very long time, not just hours, it took days. Roots had grown over each other in layers – each had to be removed one by one. It took a great deal of time, patience and energy. This reminded me a lot about the work I have seen underway in Singapore and the US as people went about transforming government to better serve citizens. The old ways were very entrenched, just like those bamboo roots. It was not possible to make one change, many things had to be changed all at the same time in order for new technologies to make a positive difference for the customer.

Singapore is currently on its 3rd decade of eGovernment initiatives, starting the next 5 year plan 2011 to 2015 for being a world class citizen centric government. Ranked top in the world in information-communications development and usage by the Waseda University World eGov ranking, and number one by IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook – a significant shift has been made, to go away from the earlier “Government Knows Best” approach to a new “Gov-With-You” in which the government is harnessing social network technologies to improve services and lower costs. A key strategy is to use the video channels like, social networks like and messaging channels like to engage with the citizens to shape government services that deliver value to the citizens. What is clear is the new hardwon maturity emerging in the Singapore eGov leadership, with sophisticated policy makers realizing that CEM can be designed best “in-conjunction” with the citizen/customer.

A thorough review of the practical aspects of Singapore eGov strengths and weaknesses has been written by Australian researchers at Monash University, Houng Ha and Ken Coghill. “the Singaporean government has changed the ways it looks, thinks and acts”…”The government has had to challenge itself and change the ways it thinks and operates in order to continually develop, sustain and improve the operational processes of the public services”. From 2002 to 2005, the Singapore government invested approximately US $1Billion or $250 per head of population. If China had spent the equivalent amount per person, this would be $350 billion. If the US had spent this amount per person, they would have spent $75 billion. Thus the lessons from Singapore are useful pointers to other governments in improving customer experience, because of the amount invested already and the depth of commitment that shows to the goal of government serving the people with technology.

This framework has lead to the successful growth of eGovernment by motivating and providing incentives for all stakeholders to use and improve online Services. A key point to note that eGovernment success in Singapore has been achieved primarily by human capital development and capacity building.

Let’s apply this framework to some recent examples. The European Union recognized the 2009 winners of the eGovernment Awards. Out of the 5 winners, Genvej in Denmark topped the category of eGovernment empowering citizens, and a MEPA, the Public Administration eMarketplace in Italy won the category of egovernment empowering business. We’ll briefly describe each.

Genvej – Denmark

A small town near the Danish capital of Copenhagen developed an online self-service application to provide citizens access to information and all public sector services. These services include:
– Identification: Find the name, social security number, age, address
– Real estate services: Utilities, municipality plans, and registration tests.
– Information, photos: Their children’s school and day care institution.
– Exchange information: E.g. with day care institutions e.g. about sickness, who’s picking up the child, permissions to drive in bus or car
– Enrolment: for children to a school, library services
– Order a Danish Health Security card and change their house doctor

Genvej points out key implementation guidelines for CEM success in Government:

1. DEDICATION: Genvey had three fulltime employees developing Genvej, providing user/citizen support and teaching the rest of the organization all about the digital universe.
2. STRUCTURE: Digital projects need structured work frames, Genvej used MSP/Prince2 that provided overview, control and generated energy and momentum through setting intermediate milestones and achieving progress.
3. TIME: Often it is necessary to collaborate with several partners/vendors using different terminology and jargon, misunderstanding is normal when there is diversity in the IT-systems, data and workflows.
4. PROMOTION: Promotion, talking, advertising, an over-all PR strategy including citizens and staff is necessary.

MEPA – Italy

MEPA is the Italian Public Administration eMarketplace – a virtual market in which any government agency may buy online the goods and services, offered by suppliers digitally qualified according to specific selection criteria.

MEPA connects thousands of public bodies and suppliers through 2 main purchasing tools: Direct Order (DO), and Request for Quotation (RfQ). The interactivity stimulates strong competition, gathering offers from various suppliers under defined qualification requirements, terms and conditions. Monitoring is undertaken to assure transactions meet the MEPA rules.

Looking through our Capability framework, we can summarize MEPA:

MEPA allowed many to discover that the relationship between trust and good governance is circular. Good governance leads to higher trust which in turn leads to better governance.

Our last case study is in the USA which is on the bleeding edge of CEM in Government, especially in education and health where the US Federal government efforts in these two sectors are the main achievements of President Obama. The results so far have been greatly disappointing to the supporters of President Obama. I am going to make the case that it is unrealistic to expect change so fast. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Transformation in these sectors involves many fundamental and structural changes. It is wise to be realistic about how difficult it is to change things that have been in place for dozens of years.

To implement Customer Experience Management in health requires electronic health records. Despite law’s mandating that health records be standardized and made electronic, there is still a long way to go. One might think that within the government itself it might be possible, since the government is paying for healthcare costs for government employees. Let’s apply the Capability Framework and learn.

Customer Experience management in Government requires commitment, dedication and energy of a whole different order of magnitude than in the “for profit” world. I have been privileged to work with and learn from Dr. Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the Computer Mouse and the Father of Collaborative Computing. Key insights of his have been distilled in “Improving our Ability to Improve” and in working on these issues in the US Federal Health arena, it has proved helpful to look in terms of future capabilities looking at the interaction of tools/technologies and the human systems which enable those capabilities. Engelbart’s key insight is that future technologies cannot be designed and developed in isolation from the human systems. Human capital development and organizational development is required.

As we learned from the Genvej Denmark case study – it is critical to have a shared vision of the future – in all its complexities, nuances and dimensions. That vision encompassing the tool system, the human system and the new capabilities resulting from their interaction cannot be from the point of view of one powerful stakeholder, but must include all stakeholders. In order for that shared vision to come about , it is necessary that there are values and meanings that are important to the stakeholders – important enough that they commit themselves to realistically devise the roadmap required to achieve the vision. MEPA in Italy demonstrated the change in the human system that had to take place in order to enable MEPA to function – a new legal framework had to be put in place. Finally, the Singapore case study reminds us that heavy investment in human capital is required. Commitment and understanding that effective training and skill development is required to re-orient an entire population to live in a different world where new capabilities are constantly being developed.

When you think it is a sprint and it turns out to be a marathon, then you might give up. That’s one reason why CEM in government is the most challenging area to drive Customer Experience. It is also the area that can be the most rewarding.

For those who are up to the challenge – the long hard work of driving CEM in Government is worthwhile when you know that millions of lives will be changed for the better through your efforts, that your passion to improve standard of living and benefit humankind is shared by many, who are waiting to hear your call to action. I urge you to rise to the extreme challenge of this most worthwhile endeavor, to join with others to leave the world a better place than you found it.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mei Lin Fung
Institute of Service Organization Excellence, Inc.
Mei Lin Fung, blogs on ebCEM – evidence-based Customer Experience Management. The Service Leadership Transformation Program developed in an innovative public private partnership with Avaya and Oklahoma State University received the Phillip Crosby Golden Medallion in 27. Her curriculum has been implemented by Microsoft Telesales in China, and Johnson and Johnson in Asia. She designed the first US Department of Labor approved Contact Center Apprenticeship Program in Oklahoma. Blog: Learning to Earn Customer Trust by Mei Lin Fung


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