Listening to the Voice of the Constituent

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Privately owned companies are not the only ones turning to new technology to improve their services and communication channels—U.S. government agencies are also taking the plunge, albeit in varying degrees. Increasingly, federal, state, and local agencies are delving deeper into CRM-related software and social media networks.

The concept of CRM in government is not new. Companies like Salesforce.com, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and RightNow Technologies (acquired by Oracle) have been offering CRM products designed for government agencies for years. However, unlike in commercial-oriented areas, in which the "C" stands for customer, CRM fits into the public sector as constituent relationship management.

Government agencies are generally not interested in the sales aspect of CRM, but, like business owners, they are interested in improving their relationships with the people they serve. "Government agencies are thinking outside the traditional box of CRM. They are looking to leverage the core functionality of the application and build a solution and platform that address the specific mission of the agency," notes Keith Galumbeck, Microsoft practice director at Array Information Technology, which specializes in product and system integration and enterprise support services.

In a world where government organizations are often viewed with distrust, CRM-related tools can help agencies make their operations more transparent and accessible, as well as provide ways for constituents to play a more active role in their government.

Government 2.0

In laying out his platform as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to "open up government to its citizens" and use "cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America's citizens." One of the most notable aspects of his campaign was its aggressive use of social media, online video, and other Web 2.0 tools. It came as no surprise when his administration rolled out a strategy to inject more transparency and accountability into government through a strong emphasis on technology.

One of the first steps the transition team took was to offer opportunities for citizens to provide input on the issues that they wanted the Obama administration to focus on. On the Web site Change.gov, the transition team launched "The Citizen Briefing Book," an online forum where anyone could post or vote on proposals about issues that concerned them, which would then be delivered to the president. The forum, which was made using Salesforce.com's Ideaforce platform, was launched on January 12, 2009, and closed a week later, on the president's inauguration day.

"The Citizen Briefing Book" was released to the public five months later. More than 125,000 users had submitted more than 44,000 ideas and cast over 1.4 million votes, with the most popular ideas accumulating tens of thousands of votes each, according to the report. To identify the top ideas, a system was used that awarded 10 points to each positive vote. Calls to end the prohibition on marijuana received the highest number of votes, with nearly 93,000 points, followed by committing to becoming the "greenest" country in the world (70,470 points).

"In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide Wi-Fi," lamented New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas.

Although the results were probably unexpected, the government earned kudos for reaching out to the public. The breadth and diversity of the ideas prompted Joel Hood of the Chicago Tribune to comment, "As if President Barack Obama doesn't have enough on his plate, he's about to hear the voice of the people, in all its eccentric glory." The Christian Science Monitor's David Peck described the initiative as part of "a good foundation" of reaching out to individuals.

To further promote initiatives that would help government operations be more effective, efficient, and transparent, President Obama also appointed the nation's first chief technology officer and chief information officer. Although both have already moved on, they introduced numerous constituent-centric initiatives during their time in office.

As the first federal CTO, Aneesh Chopra (a former CTO for the state of Virginia who stepped down from his federal position in February) spearheaded upgrades in healthcare technology, such as the storing and use of electronic health records for veterans, expanded access to broadband for rural communities, and other initiatives.

During the two-and-a-half-years he spent as federal CIO, Vivek Kundra (who recently joined Salesforce.com as an executive vice president of emerging markets) was an early advocate of cloud computing in the public sector. Kundra authored the "Cloud-First Policy," which directed government agencies to give priority to Web-based applications and services. Kundra also spearheaded the Data.gov initiative, a Web site that gives the public access to datasets generated and held by the federal government; the Federal IT Dashboard, which allows citizens to look up descriptions and cost assessments of government IT projects; and TechStat Accountability Sessions, evidence-based reviews of specific IT projects.

"To the Obama administration's credit, citizens now have the ability to go online and bring up any particular company or consulting partner of the government and [see]…how much of their taxpayer money is going to that organization. That particular transparency did not exist before," notes Chuck Schaeffer, CEO of Vantive Media, a technology media company, as well as founder of Aplicor, a cloud-based CRM and ERP applications developer. "Unfortunately the database isn't always current or complete, but…we're moving in the right direction."

Oregon Boosts Its Feedback Capabilities

On a state level, government agencies have also turned to CRM systems for help streamlining business processes and providing more efficient services. In 2010, the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) for Oregon launched a strategy to identify cost-effective process improvements. As the central administrative agency for the state, DAS provides printing services, computer and network services, risk management services, statewide financial and human resources systems and services, and rental vehicle fleets and facility management.

"We knew there were dissatisfied customers within the agencies we serve," explains Sarah Gates, operational performance manager for the Office of the Chief Operating Officer within DAS. "We had lots of data and anecdotes…. But we had no way of knowing how their comments tied back to our actual services and no way of identifying specific changes that would provide the greatest impact to customer satisfaction."

DAS previously used manual or email surveys to evaluate customer satisfaction/customer experience and employee engagement. With 800 employees and thousands of customers across dozens of departments and agencies, each survey required more than two months to analyze.

"We needed a platform for quickly gathering and analyzing feedback that would help us identify specific actions for increasing satisfaction," Gates recalls. "We also needed help identifying employee perceptions so that we could put measures in place to address their concerns."

Gates selected the enterprise feedback management provider Allegiance from the GSA's list of approved vendors, noting that it met "all our business requirements including text analytics, customizable surveys, [and] incorporating Net Promoter Score [NPS] as a measure of customer satisfaction."

DAS implemented the Allegiance Engage platform in September 2010 to gather solicited and unsolicited feedback from employees and customers. The state agency first worked with the Allegiance professional services team to develop and deliver a customized survey to all 800 employees, which was repeated among randomized subsets of employees every three months for the first year. The survey measured employee engagement levels and drivers of engagement.

In the first survey, DAS achieved a 65 percent response with "good representation" across most of the divisions and different types of employees. The industry average response rate for manual surveys is estimated at 10 percent.

The following spring, DAS delivered and analyzed the first customer experience surveys tied to specific interactions. Consisting of 10 questions, the surveys were directed to a random sample of customers who use services of the state's vehicle rental fleet, iLearnOregon (learning management), and internal and external IT departments (State Data Center and Technical Support Center). The Allegiance platform's analytic tools linked a specific customer-employee interaction to an overall satisfaction response. Strong negative responses triggered an alert that was sent immediately to the relevant department for follow-up.

Tying survey responses directly to the service that was provided has made it easier for DAS employees to pinpoint the areas where improvements are needed, notes Bryan Nealy, service support manager for the State of Oregon Data Center. "We can now respond within days, if not hours, and the transactional surveys are more closely tied to the specific incident, enabling us to personalize the relationship."

Another benefit, according to Nealy, is that the Allegiance platform allows the agency to limit the frequency and number of survey requests that are delivered to customers. "No one likes being spammed with surveys. The system is flexible enough that we can limit the survey requests that are sent to someone who hasn't received a survey within thirty days, for example," he notes. "Having a system that is customizable and can be reconfigured has proved invaluable as we move into the future. We need to take the pulse of the customer base on a variety of topics so that we can improve the way we do business."

DAS also discovered that engagement is generally higher at the supervisory level than within nonmanagerial ranks, prompting the agency to implement actions to help employees feel more empowered in troubleshooting problems. Gates also pointed to improved data quality and reduced analysis costs as strong benefits of the Engage platform. "Prior to Allegiance, we had to hand code thousands of freeform text comments—a very labor-intensive process that is hard to do consistently over time," says Gates, who used to spend close to a month coding comments herself.

Gates estimates that she saves at least 40 hours of staff time in the analysis of every survey because Allegiance's text analytics function does it automatically, in addition to determining sentiment in real time and across multiple surveys.

"By making contact with the customer quickly, we can head off potential problems early on," Gates maintains. "The government cannot afford to provide ineffective services, and the more data we have, the easier it is to provide excellent services."

311 Programs Go Digital

When it comes to asking for help from citywide services, such as repairing a broken streetlight or filling in a pothole, dialing 311—a phone number designated in many cities for non-emergency calls—has proved very popular with both residents and city officials, Schaeffer maintains.

Residents "love" 311 programs, because they "help them solve their local issues," Schaeffer says, adding that 311 programs also help the government steer calls to the appropriate channels.

While dozens of cities already have 311 call centers, several are expanding their 311 programs to include mobile apps. In April, District of Columbia mayor Vincent C. Gray announced the launch of the District's new DC311 free smartphone app, which enables citizens to report service requests from their iPhone or Android mobile devices. There are more than 80 service requests to choose from, including complaints about trash, potholes, graffiti, and illegal dumping.

"With this emerging technology, we continue to ensure that the District is a safe and beautiful place for all of our residents and visitors by giving them a tool for real-time collaboration with our government. If you see a pothole, graffiti, or a broken streetlight, you can snap a photo of it and send it directly to 311…and within thirty seconds you can be on your way to a resolution," said Mayor Gray in a statement.

Utilizing GPS technology, the app is able to pinpoint the location of the reported situation. The District of Columbia uses Motorola's PremierOne CSR to track the information that is funneled from the new app, the Citywide Call Center, and the 311Online Web site. Once the service request has been submitted, users receive a confirmation email from 311, which is followed by a second email after the request has been closed by the servicing agency.

Citizen CoSponsor

Attempts to find new ways of reaching constituents are taking place on a bipartisan level, and in March, the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) unveiled a platform to get the public more involved in sponsoring bills.

Built on Facebook's Open Graph, the "Citizen CoSponsor" platform lets users "cosponsor" a bill by clicking a button, whereby they can track the status of the bill. This being Facebook, the platform also shares the user's support of a bill with his or her friends.

"We are dedicated to modernizing the way Congress connects with the American people," Rep. Cantor said in a statement. "Citizen CoSponsor breaks ground by directly connecting people with the work the House is doing every day. With the simple click of a button, Citizen CoSponsors will become a part of the deliberative process, using the same social networks they already rely on in their everyday lives."

At the time this article was written, citizens could cosponsor six bills, which were listed as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act; Homes for Heroes Act; Small Business Tax Cut Act; JOBs Act; No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act; and Protect Access to Healthcare Act.

On the same day the platform was launched, the press office of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) tweeted, "How did you select those six bills in Citizen CoSponsor? Partisan? Senate GOPers want you to include the Senate Highway bill." Requests for comments from Rep. Cantor's office about the CoSponsor platform were not returned.

Nikki Usher, assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, applauds Rep. Cantor for "leading the charge on trying new things with social media" but finds the platform misleading.

"At the moment, [the Citizen CoSponsor platform] is not an information-rich environment for people to discover information about bills in Congress. It distills the bills into one talking point…. It doesn't give people the chance to dig deep and that's concerning to me," Usher says. "On the flip side, it's an experiment and that's great. It's amazing to see people thinking outside of the box."

Looking Ahead

These are just some ways government agencies have experimented with CRM-related technology to more effectively serve the public. Budget limitations and security concerns will always make technology adoption more challenging in some ways compared to the private sector. Although such adoption is occurring at different speeds and levels of intensity, most government agencies appear to agree with a statement federal CIO Steven VanRoekel made in a recent blog post: "We know that IT has the power to fundamentally transform the way government does business and the way we deliver services to the American people."

Lessons from Government Leaders: A Q&A with David Gergen

In his opening keynote address at the 2011 CRM Evolution conference, David Gergen, senior CNN political analyst and former adviser to four U.S. presidents, told attendees that a leader's job is to influence others to act. There is one caveat, though: Leaders must do so "in the pursuit of shared goals," not only the company's goals, he warned.

To do so, leaders must listen to the voice of their constituents or customers. After his keynote, Gergen, who authored the book Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, sat down with CRM magazine to talk about the role of a leader in today's digitally connected world and the need to listen to the people they serve. Below is a portion of that interview. (For the full interview, which includes his thoughts on President Obama's rise to the top, his mistakes, and what he has done right, the biggest danger to the United States, and the need for leaders who have a combination of core competence and emotional intelligence, visit www.http://bit.ly/KHhq9i.)

CRM: As needs and interests change, how important is it for leaders to look to the people they serve for guidance?

Gergen: Leadership is about action, not about maintaining stability. Leadership and management are different. Management is about making sure the trains run on time and things are efficient. Leadership is about trying to bring change. For that purpose, the relationship between the leader and the constituents, the leader and the customers, the leader and the voters, the leader and the followers, that relationship always has to be one that's interactive and iterative. It's a continuing conversation. It's not a [one-off] situation.

In particular, with a corporation, if you set a goal and set a strategy, during the execution stage, once you've made your decision about what you're going to do, what's important after the decision is to keep a check on where it's going. How well is it working? How are people responding? Are we getting what we're looking for? Should we adjust? Should we adapt to what we're seeing? There's a lot of that conversation that has to precede a decision, but after a decision is made, you have to keep on ensuring that it's working.

Louis Gerstner, after leaving IBM, wrote a book [Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?]and made the point [that] the word inspect is as important as the word respect for a leader in a corporation.

In your keynote, you mentioned that you have to listen to the voice behind the voice. Polls and surveys reveal what you said is a "pushed" response.

Polls are an important indicator, but they're a piece of reality, they are not reality itself. In the first place, it's a snapshot. It's not a film. Secondly, there's a one in 20 chance the poll is going to be way off, even a really good poll, so they have a margin of error. What people look for in polls is not a particular [statistic], but trend lines. Are things going up, things going down, going sideways, etc.?

But it's also true that polls don't necessarily capture the inner voice of people who are speaking. Americans can feel much more intense about some subjects than the polls reveal or less intense than the polls reveal. Polls try to adjust for that; they try to look for intensity, but there is no substitute for actual face-to-face conversation. Polls are a good barometer, the Internet is an important barometer, but you can't just sit in a corner office and have the data come in and expect to know what's going on.

In your book, you mentioned that when Nixon lost his first election to President Kennedy, he went into the "wilderness." And in that time he was able to get a better understanding of his purpose. Did much of that come from listening to his constituents?

Nixon was an unusual figure. Actually, a lot of that time was spent reading and writing, but he did travel. Nixon was not as good at listening to the voices of the American people as he was at listening to the voices of leaders of other countries. He had this view that if you're a leader, you're sort of above it all. That was one of his shortcomings.

You spoke in your keynote about social media and how Netflix, Gap, Groupon, and other companies have failed. What suggestions do you have for companies to recover from a social media disaster?

In the first place, you have to be very attentive to what's happening and you have to act quickly. You have to know whether you plan to hold your ground or whether you plan to cut your losses. And, if you're going to cut your losses, cut them quickly. Don't wait. The longer you draw out one of these crises and allow it to drag on day after day, the weaker you get. And when you finally cut your losses, you really get hurt.

Fast Facts

How well do you know your government? Here are five tech-related facts about government agencies and the president.

The General Services Administration was the first U.S. federal agency to use a cloud-based email service.

Sunday night is the busiest night for the National Guard in terms of social media visitors.

More than 250 official government Twitter feeds were regularly used to send information to the public about Hurricane Irene, making it the first time social media was used by a large number of government agencies in preparation for and during an emergency.

New York City is home to the nation's most comprehensive 311 call center.

Barack Obama became the first "emailing president" when it was decided he could keep a security-enhanced BlackBerry and use it for email.

(Sources: The GSA Blog; G&H International Services; National Guard Bureau of Public Affairs; New York City Independent Budget Office Fiscal Brief)

Associate Editor Judith Aquino can be reached at jaquino@infotoday.com.

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