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What we learned after interviewing dozens of people about their interactions with the federal government

Recent research has made clear that federal agencies need to improve the public’s interactions with the government across the board. Overall, Americans’ satisfaction with federal services is dropping, and currently ranks below their satisfaction with private-sector and local-government services.

A team of researchers in the General Services Administration studied broad trends in people’s perceptions of and interactions with the government. Those trends will be used to identify and create cross-agency services and resources to improve how the government interacts with the public.

As a starting point, we conducted extensive research on different people’s views of and interactions with federal agencies. A newly-issued report details our findings and recommendations. You can read the full report here. Over the next tens days, we’ll also be publishing the report in full on our blog.

This research is not intended to be a critique of specific government agencies. Rather, our aim was to better understand the public’s overall experience interacting with the federal government and their attitudes about sharing information with government agencies. The examples we’ve provided illustrate patterns seen across all agencies.

In today’s installment, we detail our initial research questions and what we learned. In future posts, we’ll share the interaction strategies that people use when interacting with government, how people interact with the government via proxies, how trust plays a role in government, and what people think about before sharing personal information.

Lines of inquiry: our research questions

We structured our research so we could better understand the following questions:

  • What touch points do people think they have with the federal government?

  • What touch points do people actually have with the federal government?

  • What are people’s pain points in interacting with the federal government?

  • Are people taking advantage of the government services they are eligible for? Why or why not?

  • How do people feel about sharing their personal information with the government?

Touch points are instances where people interact with an agency (for example, websites, 1–800 numbers, or in person). Pain points are moments where those interactions become unpleasant, inefficient, or otherwise unsatisfactory.

We wanted to explore the touch points, pain points, and information-sharing attitudes of all the people who interact with the U.S. federal government. This includes U.S. citizens, but also other people who interact with the government as they travel, immigrate, or conduct business with the United States.

During October and November 2015, we conducted 35 scheduled interviews (each of which was roughly 45 minutes) and 29 short intercept interviews in Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Sacramento. We also ran a diary study that included seven participants and yielded 52 entries. You can read more about our approach and details of our research in the methodology supplement to this report.

What we learned

As a result of our research, we found:

  • People have diverse attitudes toward the government and use varied strategies to get information from it.

  • Digital literacy, access, and language fluency are challenges for many people who interact with the government’s services.

  • People depend on others (for example, family members, friends, and public library staff) for help with government websites, but government services are not set up to support this type of assistance.

  • The government is a black box: People don’t understand what goes on inside it.

  • People feel ill equipped to make choices about government services when the government presents too many options or inadequate information about those options.

  • People trust the government to varying degrees, based on the context of their interaction. Their experience is shaped not only by their past experience with an agency, but also by the urgency of their request and the life event they’re experiencing.

  • People weigh the likelihood of getting a benefit or service with the effort required to apply for it before interacting with the government.

  • Agencies may be able to share users’ information with each other under certain circumstances.

  • Most people we interviewed were comfortable with the prospect of an agency sharing their personal information with another agency; they were not comfortable with the prospect of an agency sharing their information with a private company.

We also discovered three distinct barriers that prevent many members of the public from having pleasant interactions with the government. These include:

  • Capacity — There is a shortage of public servants available to assist the number of people interacting with federal agencies.

  • Digital infrastructure — Systems do not cross agency boundaries, and they provide the public little assistance with completing forms and navigating complex processes.

  • One-size-fits-all approach — Because complex and simple applications are given equal resources, the current process for managing applications suffers from many bottlenecks and delays.

Tomorrow, we’ll share the various interaction strategies people use when interacting with government systems.

Additional contributors to this report include Katherine Garklavs, 18F, GSA and Ryan Thurlwell, 18F, GSA. To contact the Federal Front Door team, email federalfrontdoor@gsa.gov. You can read the complete report on labs.usa.gov, a new site that will house all of the research conducted by this team.

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