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Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops

White House workshop engaged leadership from across government, business, nonprofit, and philanthropy to improve program effectiveness through participant feedback.

When it comes to strengthening the public sector, the Federal Government looks for new ways to achieve better results for the people we serve. One promising tool that has gained momentum across numerous sectors in the last few years is the adoption of feedback loops.  Systematically collecting data and learning from client and customer insights can benefit organizations across all sectors.

The collection of these valuable insights—and acting on them—remains an underutilized tool.  The people who receive services are the experts on their effectiveness and usefulness.  While the private sector has used customer feedback to improve products and services, the government and nonprofit sectors have often lagged behind.  User experience is a critically important factor in driving positive outcomes.  Getting honest feedback from service recipients can help nonprofit service providers and agencies at all levels of government ensure their work effectively addresses the needs of the people they serve. It’s equally important to close the loop by letting those who provided feedback know that their input was put to good use.

In September, the White House Office of Social Innovation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted a workshop at the White House on data-driven feedback loops for the social and public sectors.  The event brought together leaders across the philanthropy, nonprofit, and business sectors who discussed ways to collect and utilize feedback.

The program featured organizations in the nonprofit sector that use feedback to learn what works, what might not be working as well, and how to fix it. One organization, which offers comprehensive employment services to men and women with recent criminal convictions, explained that it has sought feedback from clients on its training program and learned that many people were struggling to find their work site locations and get to the sessions on time. The organization acted on this feedback, shifting their start times and providing maps and clearer directions to their participants.  These two simple changes increased both participation in and satisfaction with their program.

Another organization collected feedback to learn whether factory workers attend and understand trainings on fire evacuation procedures. By collecting and acting on this feedback in Brazil, the organization was able to help a factory reduce fire-drill evacuation time from twelve minutes to two minutes—a life-saving result of seeking feedback.

With results such as these in mind, the White House has emphasized the importance of evidence and data-driven solutions across the Federal Government.  Federal agencies like the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Agency for International Development (USAID) have been working to incorporate feedback systems into their programs. In partnership with the Department of State, GSA's is piloting a process that lets government agencies receive comments from the public on specific issues.  After submitting feedback, participants can review and respond to other comments.  If a participant wishes to provide an email address, agencies will close the loop by letting participants know how their feedback was used. For example, State is currently reviewing comments received about how to improve the application process for U.S. passports.

USAID works to end extreme poverty in over 100 countries around the world. The Agency has recently changed its operational policy to enable programs to adapt to feedback from the communities in which they work. They did this by removing bureaucratic obstacles and encouraging more flexibility in their program design. For example, if a USAID-funded project designed to increase agricultural productivity is unexpectedly impacted by drought, the original plan may no longer be relevant or effective; the community may want drought-resistant crops instead.  The new, more flexible policy is intended to ensure that such programs can pivot if a community provides feedback that its needs have changed or projects are not succeeding.

Through these efforts, Federal agencies are working to better understand the experiences of the participants impacted by their programs and amplify their voices. The White House encourages leaders across government agencies and nonprofit service providers to gather and incorporate feedback to benefit the millions of people they provide services for every day.

Thomas Kalil is the Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

David Wilkinson is the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation.