As the 21st century progresses, so do the federal, state and local governments – sometimes for the better, sometimes not so well. With the entry into public and private life of the Gen Xers and Gen Yers and the increasing interest in participation in electoral and political activities that the baby boomers are showing as they retire, the public sector is coming to grips with the importance of what they are calling (wrongly) citizen relationship management or (rightly) constituency relationship management – in either case, the acronym is CRM.
But while the desire for implementing CRM is increasing in the public sector, how to go about it is less clear. With the traditional concerns of government –privacy matters, security issues, regulatory requirements, the protection of the “commonwealth of interests” of its citizens, and the increasing complexity of relations among federal, state and local agencies, CRM’s implementation becomes a more complicated matter than just figuring out how to run the agencies and using software to run it in the interests of both the agency and the constituents it serves.
Not only are there issues of strategy, changes in culture, re-engineering of processes and meeting the increasingly strident demands of a citizenry being empowered by Web 2.0, but also matters of technology platform choice that didn’t exist less than two years ago to any great degree.
Now they do exist.
The choice of software as a service (SaaS) also known as “on demand” services, is a good one when it comes to the public sector. In fact, even though SaaS as an enterprise level service has only really been prevalent since 2003, a little over five percent of the federal, state and local governments, use SaaS to deliver their constituent services and varying operations. The first thing that crosses your mind with this statement might be “What? Are you kidding? What about security? What about data management? What about privacy? How can it meet the government standards?”
THE VALUE OF CRM TO THE PUBLIC SECTOR
In order to understand the value of software as a service for the public sector, it’s important to look at why, the most mature SaaS application service, CRM, is so important to the public sector. While there are other business applications that SaaS covers like human resources, ecommerce, and even analytics, CRM has been the one that led the on demand charge for the last several years, and has real value to federal, state, and local agencies as technology surely, but more importantly as a strategy associated with a set of processes and a technology to support it.
Ironically, CRM could prove even more valuable to the public sector than even to the private sector. Why?
In the United States, each of us, since our childhood, has been raised on a set of principles that were expressed most famously by Abraham Lincoln during his Gettysburg Address. We are a nation in which the institutions of government are expected to function as instruments “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Those institutions whether federal, state or local agencies or even quasi-governmental organizations like the U.S. Postal Service are entrusted with the faith and belief of the U.S. citizenry and are theoretically the administrative expressions of that faith in the republic. That means that as representative bodies, they are responsible to serve their constituencies in ways that engender trust from those constituents by being responsive to those constituents. This is not a partisan issue. We are talking about trust in institutions, not political parties or even particular individuals.
Maintaining this trust is by no means easy for government agencies – especially since Watergate. In fact, trust has continued, for the last 30 plus years, to be at an all time low. For example, in 1961, the percentage of citizens who had faith in the institutions of government was 75%. Post-1974, it has been around 30-35%, most currently in the CNN/Time Annual Survey of Trust in Government in 2005 at 32%.
This might be a hard thing to fathom for a public servant who is caught up in the day to day micro-activity of government administration, but aside from the job, this institutional responsiveness and the need to personally “do” something is often the reason that many public sector employees became public sector employees.
CRM’s entire raison d’etre is based on the idea that, if you provide the customer with the experience that they are looking for and that they can share, then they will become your advocates, devoted and loyal customers who will continue to both purchase from you and evangelize for you over many years. You not only will retain them, but gain their trust.
How is this different than the mission and charge of a government agency? At one level, it doesn’t differ much at all. Each government agency has a responsibility to its constituents, be they the individual citizen or other agencies at any level of government, to capture and keep their trust. That is part of the charter that they have and supports the deeply embedded belief that the constituents maintain.
The benefit of CRM is that it actually can provide the tools, processes, culture, and organization to institutionalize the practices and the outlooks that are necessary to get and retain that trust – which the American population is willing to give – if there is a consistently amenable response from the government agencies to those constituents.
That is where it resembles the private sector’s version of CRM. Provide the services, products, tools and culture that a customer/constituent can use to have the experience that minimally they personally expect, and you have the trust of that customer/constituent.
But where it begins to differ from its private sector counterpart is when CRM has to work in multiple ways across multiple agencies and multiple departments within multiple agencies – often both locally and remotely. It means coordination between the actual human interactions of agency employees with the constituents; effective working relationships between agencies to coordinate the types of responses – both ordinary and extraordinary – so that the results are transparent to the constituents; the smooth interface between not just the processes but the processes and the technologies that are automating some of those processes and simply enabling the best use of other processes. It also means that there have to be highly effective multiple channels for the constituent to communicate with the agency.
For example, look at the General Services Administration (GSA) FirstGov website (http://www.firstgov.gov) (Figure 1).
It is organized according to constituent-type (citizens, businesses, government employees, etc.), by agency, and by areas of interest (benefits and grants, etc.). It is user-friendly. It is easy to navigate. It is not cluttered. It has a blog and it is a central clearinghouse for access multi-agency and single agency services online. This is CRM at its best working for the constituent – allowing the constituent to manage their own experience with the GSA and through it, multiple other government agencies in ways that make it easy for the constituent and provide the responsiveness they are looking for.
To make this work well, it takes common practices and standards including technology standards and the willingness of different levels of federal, state and local government to accept the interoperable standards and practices. It takes interagency cooperation and it needs constituent input to work. The agencies need to respond in ways that the constituents are demanding.