In the Shutdown Era, Agencies Must Reinvent Citizen (and Employee) Experience

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Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Government executives would be wise to heed this wisdom from Winston Churchill. We’re living in the era of shutdowns, when funding disruption is the norm. To survive —and maybe thrive—federal agencies must reinvent their business models to focus outside-in, from the experiences of citizens, employees, and other agencies.

This is painful for everyone. Federal workers and contractors are forced to wonder if they’ll have a job from one month to the next. Citizens face frustrating gaps in service. Executives at federal agencies face constant road blocks that slow down key initiatives. Even politicians, on both sides of the aisle, say this is not the type of government their constituents sent them to Washington to create.

And this era of shutdowns probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Between constant election cycles and partisanship, it’s unlikely we’ll have smooth sailing going forward. Federal shutdowns—the colloquial term for the funding gap period that causes a full or partial shutdown of federal government operations and agencies—have become the new normal.


In the best of times, management-heavy operating models are slow-moving, taking years to change course and often hamstrung by administration changes. To operate in this current environment, agency executives have taken a “keep the lights on” approach that, at best, maintains the status quo. What gets lost is innovation. In the era of shutdowns, legacy IT isn’t being updated; it’s being unplugged. The current lack of investment runways means that federal agencies must get it right the first time.

To find efficiency or even to just maintain cost levels, agency leaders must start by asking how they can empower their employees to provide services that maintain the trust, loyalty, and experiences that their constituents—citizens, employees, and other agencies—have come to expect. This starts by asking which aspects of mission delivery are critical to meeting public expectations.

Centering on constituent/citizen experience doesn’t mean spending more—it means spending smarter. Agency leaders who thrive in the era of shutdowns will recognize that the safest path is to focus on delivering employee and constituent experiences that enable citizens to be served in ways that create advocates while driving compliance and efficacy. Research demonstrates that strong constituent experience leads to higher citizen loyalty and advocacy. But citizen experience is an equally powerful tool for improving how federal employees—internal customers—perceive and interact with the tech organization.

If you don’t believe that constituent experience is a critical asset, consider our recent collective experiences with the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). The shutdown affected airport operations across the country, with fewer TSA agents available to remedy long lines. And yet, in most instances, travelers we’ve spoken to indicated their experiences were equivalent, if not better. For the first time, there was a shared sense of appreciation for the dedication of TSA agents, and their renewed focus on efficiency was likewise appreciated. This result is counterintuitive: Service levels decreased while customer satisfaction increased. It’s a lesson every agency should follow as they try to deliver on their mission with fewer resources. When all else fails, your mission can thrive on healthy citizen experiences—fueling employee satisfaction and loyalty as well as citizen compliance.


Current fiscal constraints and the need for federal services will not go away. Agency leaders need to change the way they do business. They can start by asking the right questions:

  • What is the most efficient way to deliver our mission?
  • What aspects of our experiences are critical to maintaining the trust of our customers and employees?
  • How can we sustain trust and empathy while reducing costs?

Pivoting to a CX mind-set resets common assumptions about where to look for quick performance improvements and the role of the agencies more broadly. This approach puts both customers and employees at the center of the design process. Identify the ideal relationship between them and your federal systems and processes while helping to identify where your internal ecosystem is limiting your organization’s potential. Adopting a constituent-based model ensures the highest impact of technology design and delivery. Agencies that find a new way will emerge from this crisis with lean, agile, and focused organizations. 

Bobby Cameron is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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