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Government looks to CRM with Citizen Relationship Management

Government agencies are beginning to embrace business concepts and are increasingly turning to CRM to modernize legacy systems and treat citizens as customers.

Government bureaucracies don't have a reputation for being customer-service driven. But as the public sector increasingly embraces CRM, some agencies are making progress.

Currently, government purchases account for a small but healthy 6% of the CRM market, according to Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, which projects a 5.5% annual growth rate in public sector CRM.

One reason is that CRM can put a contemporary face on aging, siloed legacy systems, according to John Kost, managing vice president for Gartner's government and healthcare research.

Few governments can afford to modernize all of their legacy systems, and CRM will increasingly be seen as a way of driving better customer satisfaction and better service.
John Kost
Managing vice president, government and healthcare researchGartner

"Few governments can afford to modernize all of their legacy systems," Kost said, "and CRM will increasingly be seen as a way of driving better customer satisfaction and better service."

Gwinnett County, Ga., has consolidated residents' complaints and the county's responses into a single information system with SAP's Customer Interaction Center software.

"If there's a pothole caused by a water leak, we may have people calling the department of transportation or the department of public utilities or the county administrator … so a whole group of people might be dealing with the same issue," said Steve North, the deputy director of support services for Gwinnett County. "We need to be able to see that we have a service request entered and that somebody is working on it."

In other areas of government, CRM is helping to improve community development and provide insight into the specific needs of residents.

For example, one of the top priorities for employees at the Economic Development Agency (EDA) for Arlington County, Va., is to attract business projects to the county. To do that, employees rely on a network of community contacts -- politicians, real estate developers, business owners -- for information and support. But until recently, EDA employees had no centralized repository for contact information. In late 2005, the EDA implemented and employees can now categorize, annotate and share contact information.

"Now you can search in and find out who has a relationship with an individual," said Mike Goodrich, director of administration.

Business intelligence (BI) software from the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute is helping the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation analyze the recreational preferences of residents.

Greg Summers, director of the fisheries research lab, used SAS Enterprise BI Server and other SAS software, along with survey and census data, to analyze the factors that motivated people to go fishing.

"We found out that there are a lot of people who aren't so interested in catching a lot of fish, or catching big fish, but are interested in whether it's a good way to spend time with the family," Summers said. The department is now using this information to create marketing programs aimed at families.

CRM for the government: A square peg?

Several CRM vendors have created software specifically for the government. Despite those efforts, CRM doesn't always mesh perfectly with the public sector.

In Arlington County, for instance, economic development projects are shaped by politics, which are difficult to translate into a CRM process.

"How do you fit political forces and political discussions into the standard sales cycle?" Goodrich asked.

Technical integration can be tough too, Kost said.

"CRM systems work best when integrated with the back-office systems," he said. "However, since many of these systems are quite old, the technical integration can become very difficult."

Moreover, many government agencies are working with extra impediments. Security requirements may be tighter for government. Agencies may require additional encryption or ban the use of hosted or on-demand CRM services.

Paul Greenberg, a CRM consultant and author, notes that changing federal and state regulations can create technical obstacles.

"It's against the law for a government agency to retain a cookie, for example," Greenberg said. "That's an issue for any agency trying to personalize its site."

On the other hand, government agencies are beginning to embrace business concepts such as marketing and customer service.

As Arlington County CTO Christopher T. David noted, "We provide services, whether it's picking up trash or fixing the roads, and we need to start thinking of citizens as our customers."

Sue Hildreth is a technology writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at

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