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Does DHS Really Have Customers?

Release Date: June 23, 2022

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, here’s the definition of “customer”:

Customer: one that purchases a commodity or service

And that’s likely what most of us think when we hear the word, because we are customers nearly every day at restaurants, grocery stores and other retail locations where we purchase goods or services. But when it comes to the federal government, the word “customer” is defined a bit differently.

Customers are individuals, businesses, and organizations (such as grantees, state and municipal agencies) that interact with a Federal Government agency or program, either directly or via a Federal contractor or even a Federally-funded program. Federal government customers could also include public servants and employees themselves in their interactions with Federal processes. (OMB Circular No. A-11 Section 280)

This means that every person who pays taxes or uses Medicare is a customer of the federal government. Every veteran who uses a VA facility is a customer, every government employee that fills out their timesheet is a customer.

The “customer experience” is how people experience and perceive our government services. It is what happens at the touchpoints when someone interacts with a government service. The customer experience can be a single touchpoint or several over a longer relationship between the “customer” and government. Each touchpoint is an opportunity for a positive interaction that adds up to a positive customer experience.

By the government definition, DHS does have “customers”

This definition also applies. With more than 20 Operational and Support Components, each of which has its own mission, who are wide and varied as those that comprise DHS, we serve a wide range of customers. Our customers include travelers, applicants, disaster survivors, law enforcement officials, legal representatives, vessel agents, cybersecurity analysts, mariners, and even the President.

Executive Order 14058 states “Every interaction between the Federal Government and the public, whether it involves renewing a passport or calling for a status update on a farm loan application, should be seen as an opportunity for the Government to save an individual’s time (and thus reduce “time taxes”) and to deliver the level of service that the public expects and deserves.”

If we focus on the goals of the person as they interact with our services, it’s easy to improve the experience they have

We have spent a lot of energy talking about what a customer is and whether we have them. The more important question is, Who are they and what are their needs? Why did they come to a DHS service to begin with? When we center the human, everything gets easier. Go from "customer" to traveler, or disaster survivor, or immigrant, or mariner. When you make that transformation, it's easier to imagine a person and how they're interacting with your service.

But you don't have to imagine the interaction. You can use simple human-centered design methods to gather data about the experience people have with your service. You can:

  • Go where the service is being delivered to watch and listen (we call this “field research”)
  • Try the service for yourself- have you ever filled out the forms you make your customers use? (Some people call this “eating your own dog food”)
  • Ask people using paper or digital forms if you can watch over their shoulder to see where they encounter challenges (we call this “usability testing”)
  • Ask people who have used a form or service to walk you through what worked well, and what was confusing or frustrating (this is also a type of usability testing)

Activities like these give you data. That data can inform the decisions you and your team make as you design and improve services. You don't have to guess who your customers are and what the experience of your service is like for them. You don't have to guess why they need support at particular touchpoints. Whether we call them "customers", intel analysts, vessel agents, or fellow travelers, when you center humans, it is easier to know who they are, what they're trying to do, and why they interact with your service the way they do.

Last Updated: 07/25/2022
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