Stimulating Citizen Experience

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President Barack Obama has many issues to deal with as he acclimates to his new role, arguably the most important being the economic recession. The specifics of Obama’s economic stimulus package were still being hammered out at press time—a bill passed in late January set the value of the package at $819 billion—but industry pundits believe there are some other moves Obama can make to help the country recover.

The first opportunity? Putting the contents of the potential stimulus package online in a user-friendly manner so the public can review and comment. “This is a great example where Obama believes it’s important to keep communication wide open,” explains Bruce Temkin, vice president and principal analyst for customer experience at analyst firm Forrester Research. “He knows it’s worth dedicating resources to people who will put that information up in a citizen friendly manner.”

Though still unclear at press time how (or even if) the contents would be posted online, the Obama campaign’s history of utilizing Web 2.0 technology offers a clue, and proves he understands the next wave in customer relationships. The campaign's Web site, www.barackobama.com, utilized on-demand customer experience vendor RightNow Technologies for its Answer Center function, a knowledge base providing answers to commonly asked questions.

But questions linger. At the end of 2008, Answer Center—and the collected information it contained—went offline as the Obama campaign transitioned its online constituent communication to www.change.gov. [The www.barackobama.com site has become merely a donation-solicitation page.] According to RightNow executives, the company had no involvement with the new transition site. Instead, Change.gov relied on another CRM vendor—San Francisco–based cloud computing company Salesforce.com—to foster more collaboration with the public. By building what was called a “Citizen’s Briefing Book,” any American was able to suggest ideas in several categories, including the economy, education, energy and environment, healthcare, and homeland security. Engagement didn’t stop there: Peer review was not only enabled, but encouraged, as ideas were voted on and the highest-rated rose to the top of each category’s respective list.

“We need your help…. We want to hear from you,” said Valerie Jarret, co-chair of the transition team, in a statement. “It is yet another way that we will ensure that this transition is the most open and transparent one in history.” (See our December 2008 cover story, “Transparency,” for more on the concept.) Openness and transparency may not lead to immediate action, however: The number-one rated idea on the Citizen’s Briefing Book called for legalizing marijuana. Change.gov itself transitioned into history minutes after Obama was sworn in, with much of the content moved over to a refurbished www.whitehouse.gov site.

“Citizens want to have their voices heard no matter how they choose to contact an organization,” says Kevin Paschuck, vice president of the public sector for RightNow. “It’s critical to give constituents an easy way to provide feedback as well as help agencies capture the information across multiple channels in one central knowledge foundation. Agencies can respond appropriately and constituent input can be shared [internally] for continued improvement.” (See this month’s cover story, “We the People,” for more on CRM and citizen relationships.)

Temkin says that, while transparency in government is good, it’s not the final step to shoring up citizen experience. Government offices must be wise in determining what to post online—and it’s no different in the business world. “A company can’t [take] product descriptions from its databases, throw them on the Web, and expect to sell products,” he says. “There’s an intermediate layer in which the government must think about its audience,  [and] what type of format and actual content we need.”

In terms of technology, Paschuck has an idea about how Obama might display the contents of the stimulus package to provide transparency and gain actionable insights from the potentially high volume of feedback. “With an integrated multichannel CRM solution, submissions can be immediately acknowledged, automatically routed to subject experts, and tracked to deliver consistent, accurate responses that exceed expectations,” he says. “It also captures constituent feedback in a single contact record across all channels to be analyzed and reported on in real time.”

Temkin believes that if Obama is going to continue his push to make government more transparent, it would benefit him to appoint a citizen experience officer (CEO) to break through the obstacles that chief customer officers face in the private sector. “If President Obama wants to engage a larger number of citizens, there’s going to be a huge emphasis on usability of Web sites and call centers,” he says. “A citizen experience officer could help bring mindset tools and facilitate changes necessary to make our government more citizen-friendly.”

There may be a few other vital steps for Obama to take if he’s to, as Temkin puts it, “revive brand U.S.A.” The most important in having government get the country back on track, Temkin says, are providing a clear and compelling purpose, along with continuing to extend and enhance the digital fabric—be it through Web 2.0 technology or CRM mainstays like business process management and services-oriented architecture. “What drives the growth and prosperity of our country…is a positive consumer sentiment coming from a belief that the future will be better,” he says.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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