I’m excited about this series because we’ll be highlighting practitioners and leaders who are emerging, rising stars. It’s important to give the individual a platform. Because of larger teams and politics at play, they don’t always have the opportunity to share their stories.
First up is Augusto Cangahuala, Customer Experience Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), specifically the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). We covered his beginnings, upcoming projects, advice for future practitioners, and his unique vision for the future of customer experience (CX).
Let’s start with how you got into CX.
My background is in communications; I’ve been working in comms my entire career. I’ve done marketing, corporate communications, PR, and got into technical communications when I was a contractor at NASA. Then, I started focusing on communications for IT departments and started at Peace Corps. The CIO there was into design thinking, and I had no idea what that was. Later, my manager suggested that I learn design thinking, but the agency didn’t have the funds. I knew of an organization called IDEO and they have classes specifically for development. Since I was at Peace Corps working with the developing world, it was a good fit.
My manager had us take a human-centered design class as a team and that class changed my career and life. I was never able to think the same way. Once you go through that process, you become a different person. Even though my position was still in communications, I started introducing human-centered design into my work, spreading the word, taking more classes, and attending conferences. After meeting people from different agencies, I decided there was a lot more opportunity in government to do CX because there weren’t many people focusing on it. I started going in that direction and that’s how I ended up at EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and ACF after that.
That’s awesome. You said you’re a different person and thinking in a different way, but what is your WHY for practicing this?
I came to the government to try to make a difference. As a naturalized citizen, I want to give back. The private sector is great, and I was there for a large part of my career but then I thought, “What is a great way to give back to this country?” and I saw public service. In public service, there are a lot of people doing great things but there aren’t a lot of people thinking about how we can make things better. Now we finally have an opportunity to think of these problems and have someone dedicated to this. So that’s why I’m here – I really want to help. I want to help all these folks doing great work, who are passionate about the mission but sometimes consumed by the system, the day to day, deadlines, and deliverables. This work is important, and it motivates me every day because I am contributing to make it better and easier on our citizens, users, and customers.
That’s beautiful and inspiring, thank you! You’ve been doing this for almost a decade. As you’re coming into your own in this, where do you see the opportunity for up-and-coming CX practitioners to have the most impact in public service?
Oh wow, it’s everywhere. It depends on the organization. You can join an organization that’s more mature in their process, like the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs], that has a very robust customer experience and employee experience office. There are so many structures in place versus coming to a less mature organization, like EPA or ACF, where the team is building. [In an organization like that] the opportunities are incredible. You can come with your ideas and shape an organization as you envision it. I see a lot of younger folks coming into different roles in government and I feel like they should be allowed to be freer instead of being restricted by the structures [that have been] in place for decades. That’s what I like about CX – it gives you opportunity, more freedom, and more room for growth and development than maybe other areas because in some ways, it’s relatively new.
I love that. I know you’re still relatively new to this organization, but where have you been able to affect an impact in CX? Can you give an example?
The most impact I’ve had is still at my previous agencies because here in the last couple of months, I’ve just been listening and learning a lot. I’m starting to help with something new, which is exciting. It’s called the “Innovation Challenge” and it’s very established in HHS. They do an innovation challenge throughout a 12-week process. That’s what I’m in charge of now at ACF. It hasn’t started yet, I’m planning it, so I have the opportunity to add my own flair and add my own twist to it, so that’s exciting. If you ask me next year, I can tell you about it!
At EPA, we were focusing on employee experience, and wanted to define ourselves as an employee experience office. This organization was under what you would consider the CIO, so we were under the tech umbrella. We were limited in resources, so we decided to focus on IT services. That was a project that I was very involved with, but not from the beginning…I almost inherited it. They had done research about how to improve the delivery of IT services for the entire agency, and they realized that a lot of the regional IT help desks worked with a centralized IT desk and shared responsibilities. But they themselves were confused about what each of them were supposed to solve, so that was a chaotic navigation for the user. Even those running the show wouldn’t know who or what regional IT desk was supposed to answer.
We conducted a study of the tickets that had been opened a couple of years prior and analyzed trends around things like resolutions times and the most requested services, and we talked to users. It was important to hear their voices and what they had to say. The gathering of this data led to a service desk redesign and improved processes on the back end or behind the scenes. We centralized everything in one place that made it super easy for people to find the most common services. That was a very meaningful project and people noticed immediately. It was a win for the CIO office and a win for our team.
I love that you used a help desk story because that’s what we work on here [at NuAxis]. There are so many people who ask, “Why would you do this?” It takes a long time to do those studies and integrate solutions, but then you get simple solutions that are easy for the end user to maneuver.
EPA realized there was a problem with the service desk and that we were spending a lot of money and resources on those services. Part of the motivation was to cut down the cost of providing those services. Once I joined the team, we began creating journey maps and personas. We made recommendations and the technical team would implement them. It took a few months to redesign the desk, but it was a great project to be a part of.
Going back to your comment about mature organizations – what have you seen in CX that needs to change?
There’s a lot of collaboration happening, but I would like to see more mentorship. For example, the ACF Employee Experience Office was invited by the VA’s experience office to do a talk on what they were doing, and it helped the newly formed EPA experience team get up and running. That was beautiful and I would like to see more of those become a standard instead of new CX teams in government having to figure things out on their own. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I feel like a lot of these smaller agencies don’t have that, at least not naturally.
That’s brilliant and you’re right. When I started this years ago, there was nobody around to answer questions.
When somebody wants to start a CX group or team within an organization, they should be able to reference templates, standard operating procedures, and have a list of mentors or points of contact. Maybe there’s a place that already exists with all this information, but I haven’t seen it. A lot of these offices are trying to get off the ground and they are struggling independently, but there could be more of a clear path, so to speak, in government.
I think there’s a whole world in what you said, because you’re talking about HR processes, too. Based on what you’ve seen and are seeing currently, where do you think CX is headed?
I think there’s a lot of potential, that’s why I was excited when I saw the President’s Management Agenda mention CX as a priority. This is a field that even though it’s been around for a while, it has more opportunities than some other areas of government. There are still some people who don’t know what CX is, but it will become more prominent. Roles that exist today didn’t even exist two years ago. If you are very career-driven and motivated by opportunities for growth, this is a great place to be right now.
Conversations like this one are part of what keeps our community thriving and inspired. NuAxis’ GovCX Collective is fueling the next wave of change and leaders in customer experience. We’ve curated a fun, free space for those in the CX world to relate, collaborate, and learn. Join the Collective! You won’t want to miss what we’ve got coming up.