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Using the Hero’s Journey to Improve Government Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
May 9, 2022

Think back to the last time you received service from a government agency. My most recent experience was while renewing my driver’s license. I had to go to the local driver’s license office in person for some unexplained reason. I made an appointment and brought the requested documents. I showed up on time and was told to wait. Ninety minutes later, I was directed to see a clerk who asked me all the same information I provided when making the appointment.

The clerk then turned his screen around, and I clicked on a series of checkboxes while the clerk silently watched me. After answering the questions, I handed the clerk my debit card to pay for the renewal. When the transaction was approved, my photo was taken, and five minutes later, I received my renewed driver’s license. Note how almost all these transactions could have been performed online. Even uploading a suitable driver’s license photo could have been done at my local CVS, in a passport photo department.

The Customer Experience of the Street-Level Bureaucrat

Long before I read Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy (1983), I lived much of what he wrote about as a government paralegal. “Street-level bureaucrats often spend their work lives in a corrupted world of service. They believe themselves to be doing the best they can under adverse circumstances, and they develop techniques to salvage service and decision-making values within the limits imposed upon them by the structure of the work. They develop conceptions of their work and of their clients that narrow the gap between their personal and work limitations and the service ideal” (p. xiii).

As Lipsky writes, people may come to a government agency as “unique individuals with different life experiences, personalities and current circumstances.” However, the street-level bureaucrats transform the person into a client. The person is placed into a category and receives treatment based on their category. The street-level bureaucrats train the clients on how to act while receiving the government service. Clients are labeled by their category and treated according to their label. Clients who don’t act according to their label don’t receive the services or are sanctioned in various ways.

President Biden’s Customer Experience Executive Order

Governments have a long history of improving how they deliver services. I remember reading about Presidential committees starting from the 1970s, which produced massive reports on improving government and government services. I came into the Federal government as a Presidential Management Fellow to work on Vice-President Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative. The latest government services improvement comes from President Biden’s 2021 Executive Order on Improving Government Customer Experience and Service Delivery for the American People.

According to Federal Computer Week, the “convergence of technology, culture and people today offers opportunities that have not been possible before.” For example, President Biden’s executive order promises “36 specific CX commitments across 17 different federal agencies—all with a shared goal of improved service delivery.” The executive order describes a government where all the agencies are interconnected, and the citizen accesses service through a single web portal. A “concierge” guides the citizen to sign up for and receive benefits through the portal. The portal experience is designed around “life events” that citizens experience rather than the Federal agencies’ organizational structures.

One factor I think will help make President Biden’s executive order a reality is that it focuses not only on the citizen’s experience. The executive order also addresses the government employees’ experience. Lipsky observed that street-level bureaucrats acted as they did because they dealt with crushing workloads, conflicting agency goals and a lack of clear performance measures and plans. Therefore, improving the employee experience is vital to enhancing the customer experience.

The Hero’s Journey—Design as Storytelling

You may have heard that “design is problem-solving.” However, Ellen Lupton argues there is more to design than just problem-solving. She writes that design is storytelling because people “actively seek and create patterns as we navigate the world—and we feel intrigued, stimulated and sometimes frustrated when patterns break”. The key to managing people’s expectations is to use story patterns such as the Hero’s Journey to design user experiences.

Imagine redesigning the government services experience away from the street-level bureaucrat model, to the citizen as the hero in their journey through the government. Instead, government employees have a highly positive employee experience, so they don’t revert to street-level bureaucratic behaviors in working with citizens. The customer experience executive order may also compel agencies to improve how they set and measure performance goals.

Like the Hero’s Journey, rebuilding the citizen experience model for government is a long journey fraught with many challenges. However, the reward is well worth it in strengthening citizen trust in government while elevating government employee engagement.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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