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Improving Customer Service at the Federal Government

New Legislation Is Timely and Targeted

SOURCE: AP/ David Goldman

The Government Customer Service Improvement Act would require agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration to solicit and publish customer feedback as part of an effort to push the federal government toward a more customer-friendly orientation.

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With its 50,000 airport screeners, the Transportation Security Administration directly interacts with millions of ordinary Americans every day. For many of these 2 million daily “customers,” it’s the most direct contact they’ll have with the federal government all year. So what kind of constructive feedback does the agency get from those 2 million customers?

“Nobody is familiar with any kind of customer surveys that we’ve done,” said Paul Sotoudeh, an official at the agency, in his initial response last month to a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all reports or evaluations produced since 2008 about customer service and customer satisfaction. The search for surveys is ongoing, Sotoudeh said this month.

 Meanwhile, the State Department’s passport office, another federal operation with millions of direct citizen interactions a year, does conduct a rigorous survey of “customer satisfaction.” But it refuses to release the details of those surveys.  

“We won’t be able to provide the detailed report,” said Rebecca Dodds, a Bureau of Consular Affairs spokeswoman. Dodds, whose job is to provide the public with information, did not respond to a request for explanation of why a survey conducted for taxpayer benefit should be kept secret from the very public that pays for it.

A new bill by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) attempts to address the two problems illustrated by the above anecdotes. Washington doesn’t pay enough attention to the customer service quality of its public-facing functions, and it doesn’t hold itself accountable enough to its customers. Rep. Cuellar wants to make these and other federal government agencies clearly accountable to the American public.

A bill to improve government customer service

Rep. Cuellar’s Government Customer Service Improvement Act, which unanimously passed the House’s government reform committee last month, would require agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration to solicit and publish customer feedback, and designate an agencywide “customer service representative” whom citizens can contact. It would also require the White House to annually assess whether agencies are delivering “high quality customer service” and publish those findings.

Rep. Cuellar’s bill is the latest in a string of positive developments in recent years pushing the federal government toward a more customer-friendly orientation. It seeks to preserve in law many of the provisions already contained in a November presidential executive order, in which President Obama ordered agencies to develop and publish “customer service plans” and solicit customer feedback.

An earlier Cuellar-authored law, the Government Performance and Results Act of 2010, formally included customer service as a key component in agency “performance plans.” And yet another customer service-oriented measure, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), requires all government communication to the public to be easily understandable and usable.

Both the performance and plain-writing bills passed Congress with bipartisan support at a time of extreme partisanship, suggesting that Rep. Cuellar’s latest government-reform measure has a legitimate shot at reaching the president’s desk, if Congress makes time for it.

Recommendations to strengthen the bill

If Congress does take it up, lawmakers should also take the opportunity to strengthen the bill by: 

  • Requiring the president to designate one White House official to plan, coordinate, and execute a coherent strategy across the executive branch.  Such coordination will make it easier for agencies to learn from one another and share resources. 
  • Ordering the Government Accountability Office or some other independent body to annually assess federal progress toward customer service goals. Those goals should be empirically verifiable “outcome measures,” such as reduced waiting times or improved customer satisfaction as measured by statistically reliable surveys.
  • Mandating the public release in machine-readable formats of all customer feedback collected under the law to enable public oversight. Automating the release of such information will minimize the ability of media-phobic officials to shield public records from public scrutiny.

The case for heightened scrutiny

With only a third of Americans holding a favorable opinion of the federal government, lawmakers concerned about eroding trust in government might worry about inviting even more public scrutiny. Certainly, increased attention to government customer service will reveal more of the bad apples and the press will dwell on the negative findings.

That is only proper. A single airplane crash is more newsworthy than a thousand safe landings. (Of course, conservatives who like to inflame antigovernment cynicism in the service of a “small government” ideology will welcome such scrutiny; that’s probably part of the reason for the bill’s bipartisan appeal.)

But heightened attention will also likely yield surprising—and surprisingly positive—assessments of federal government customer service. “Contrary to popular belief, it seems that the more people come into contact with and receive services from federal agencies and departments, the more they like them,” according to an analysis by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a national survey developed at the University of Michigan. Indeed, some government programs, such as the National Weather Service and loan programs administered by the Small Business Administration, are rated by their users as highly as are the best private-sector firms, according to the survey.

The Cuellar bill will call attention to these high performers and make it easier for other agencies to learn from them. That’s particularly important in this time of economic distress, because when people turn to government services more often, an unpleasant or ineffective experience can sour them to the government entirely. And that has the potential to feed a dangerous and vicious cycle: As funding gets cut, the government underperforms, leading people to become cynical about Washington’s problem solving abilities. In return, the public withdraws even more support for funding, which causes further deterioration of services the private sector can’t or won’t provide on its own.

The Government Customer Service Improvement Act can play a meaningful part in halting that cycle. Congress should pass the bill this year, and the president should make “user-friendly government” a top priority of his second term.

Gadi Dechter is Managing Director of Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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