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Utah Chief Innovation Officer Talks Customer Experience

Utah's Chief Innovation Officer Rich Saunders discusses the keys to success the state has found for improving customers' digital government experience, as well as what innovations are coming in this space.

Illustration depicts people around city, some with laptops on clouds and others doing work on buildings, but with tablets representing buildings.
Utah is continually working to make government services digital — and in doing so, the state is centering the customer experience.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies across the nation are increasingly moving services online. Doing so in a way that improves the user experience for all can also improve trust in government. According to Utah’s first Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) Rich Saunders, customer experience is a constant priority in Utah, and customers in this usage includes the residents, businesses and even visitors of Utah.

This prioritization can be seen in several state initiatives, Saunders said, including the state’s work to create a single sign-on portal for state services and continued investments in creating more feedback channels for citizens to communicate their experience and needs. From pop-ups, to texts, to a QR code on a DMV receipt, the state is gathering input wherever possible — and then using that feedback to drive process improvements.

In addition to improving existing digital government services, the state is also working to expand the number of online services available to customers. Not only does this save individuals' time, but it also helps the state to more responsibly use taxpayer funding. As Saunders pointed out, converting processes to be digital saves money, and there is research to support this.

Saunders explained that the state has a monopoly over services it provides, and thus has a responsibility to use those tax dollars carefully and be transparent about use.

“What we're doing in the state of Utah is making it so that we are very responsible with this monopolistic position and being very responsive to those that fund it, which is the taxpayers," Saunders said.

He also noted the negative emotional experience citizens can face when trying to navigate state locations or complex systems to access simple services, arguing that simplifying the digital government experience — and continually improving it with user feedback — can be a valuable way of combating this.

Another major shift in the way that the state government operates occurred when Gov. Spencer Cox signed an executive order earlier this year to create a limited-time task force that will address and ensure data sharing between state agencies.

“The overall goal of this effort is the betterment of individual outcomes from the services we provide,” Saunders stated.

As Saunders explained, this was a big and bold move that will help the state understand the broader correlations and patterns regarding things like social environments, substance use, education and employment to create aggregate, population-level insights.

The goal is that this effort will enable opportunities to remove barriers and make data-informed decisions better serve citizens with legislation, funding and process improvements.

Another significant change coming to the state is one that Cox mentioned in his 2023 State of the State address, when he called on the state to “modernize IT infrastructure.”

Saunders explained that essentially, this means bringing the state to the present age with its technologies. He argued that it involves improving the speed with which government systems retrieve data and the quality with which they present information.

In addition, he said a major part of modernization is determining which applications should be on-premise and which applications should be cloud based.

“Modernization entails really intelligently finding the balance between cloud and on-prem,” he said. “Because if we're out of balance, it can be very, very costly — needlessly costly — to the state.”

Modernization efforts will also include dealing with technical debt by addressing old systems that are no longer meeting the need of the state. This can be as simple as getting rid of technologies that are not mobile friendly, because the majority of constituents access state websites from a mobile device.

Saunders underlined that one of the state’s strengths in that the customer service space is being able to make bold moves in the right direction, even when some factors and outcomes remain unknown. The data sharing executive order was one example of such an action.

Another example is the state's partnering with Qualtrics, which initially started as a cohort of agencies while there were remaining questions about funding and buy-in. These agencies took what Saunders described as a Lewis-and-Clark-style approach, cutting through the unknown and establishing a safe journey.

Saunders believes this mindset can help other states advance in their own digital customer experience journeys.

“I would say that to people that are looking to take these steps: just take them.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.