One key aspect of the Congressional Institute’s mission statement is to “helping Members of Congress better serve their constituents.”  We welcome guest posts on our blog pages that contribute to our overall mission. This guest editorial by an innovative House Republican chief of staff discusses how congressional offices are applying modern business practices to help constituents get a better “customer experience” when dealing with their elected representatives.  – Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute

At the crossroads of politics and public policy, the United States Congress is an institution steeped in history, a distinctive sense of decorum, and established operating procedures.  Yet, in a CBS News poll taken earlier this year, 81 percent of Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its duties.  While there is no shortage of opinions as to why Americans feel the way they do, Members of Congress must respond by creating real value for their constituents, the way smart entrepreneurs offer quality products to their customers. In fact, some Members of Congress are learning from private-sector counterparts and engaging their constituents the way a company that values its clients does.

I would assert that congressional offices are not doing enough to engage their constituents customers to ascertain if they are receiving the type of representation or services they want and need.  Very few, if any, congressional offices are attempting to reach out to their constituents customers to gather the necessary data to determine if they are providing the proper “experience” to those they interact with on a daily basis.

Many offices are conducting surveys to gather micro-targeting data (information that helps congressional offices better understand and identify their constituents); however, these surveys are often not specifically designed toward creating a better experience for their constituents customers.

In Rep. Bob Latta’s office, we are developing a short survey aimed at creating a better experience for our constituents customers who visit one of our offices, call in, or e-mail to request help with a Federal agency, express their opinion on a matter of public policy, or meet with the Congressman or staff.  Additionally, we are collaborating with other offices, such as those of Rep. Brad Wenstrup (OH-2) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12), who wish to improve their office “experience” as well.  This collaborative approach will eventually lead to better data and, ultimately, better methods for elected officials to serve their constituents customers.

Creating value for our constituents customers is never an easy task, but the resulting survey data will allow congressional offices to contrast the experience their constituents customers feel they are receiving against the experience they are trying to deliver.  Without this data, congressional offices would be relegated to their own echo chamber and unable to adjust to meet the growing demands of their constituency customer base.  As author and noted customer experience expert Bill Lee notes in his February 1, 2013, Harvard Business Review blog post, companies congressional offices need to engage their constituents customers “emotionally” because “creating and capturing value from customer relationships doesn’t just happen, no matter how stellar your products and services are.”  While there is no one correct answer or singular list of “to do’s” for creating a better experience, congressional offices, like businesses in the private sector, need a means (data) to create a better end (experience).

“Always challenge the old ways”

—Howard Schultz, Starbucks

Congress, as it relates to innovation and engagement, tends to evolve much slower than private-sector companies, and the lack of innovation in addressing constituent customer demands can be linked to the aforementioned polling data.  However, there is a movement underway to change the institutional mindset of Congress and help Members, and their staff, better address the needs of their constituents customers.  House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are succeeding at implementing a public-sector variant of Clayton Christensen’s concept of “disruptive innovation” – the business innovation of improving a product or service in a way that people don’t expect that creates new value for constituents customers.  However, instead of changing a consumer marketplace or product, their innovations are nonetheless creating a new “value network,” a web of individuals and resources collaborating to benefit each other.

In the private sector, this happens because consumers are getting something new that they didn’t know they needed or the market wasn’t expecting.  While this may be true at a very academic level, consumers generally assume that products and markets will evolve.  Take, for example, the iPhone: Consumers expect that Apple Inc., will, every 12-18 months, come out with a new model with new features.  Additionally, they expect new and innovative software (OSX Mavericks), hardware (iWatch?), and content that adds value to their “experience”.  Whereas, as it relates to the United States Congress, the American public does not expect or assume that it will evolve as evidenced by its low approval rating.

“Start with the assumption that the best way to do

something is not the way it’s being done right now”

—Aaron Levie, Box

Yet, innovation in government is happening and the mindset is shifting.  Leader Cantor has launched the Citizen Co-Sponsor Project to allow every American the opportunity to tell their elected representatives which pieces of legislation they support.  Additionally, Chair McMorris Rodgers has turned the traditional standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the House Republican Conference on its head.  Adopting a start-up mentality provides members and staff alike the freedom to innovate in a way that breaks the mold of conventional congressional operations and allows Members to better represent their constituents.

“Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games”

—Babe Ruth   

These innovations are just the tip of the iceberg.  Private sector companies like Apple, Amazon, and Southwest Airlines have set the customer expectation bar extremely high and those expectations, whether consciously or subconsciously, translate into what constituents customers expect from their elected leaders.  Creating a memorable constituent customer experience in the public sector that is similar to those already in place by companies like the aforementioned continues to be the objective of disruptive innovators in Congress to ensure all constituents customers are effectively represented.

—Ryan Walker currently serves as Chief of Staff to U.S. Representative Robert E. Latta (R-OH-5)