Obama orders streamlining of federal websites

President Obama issued an executive order on Wednesday tasking federal agencies with creating new technology-based plans to improve their customer service within six months.

The plan is also aimed at streamlining the clutter of more than 20,000 federal websites now in operation, federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients told an audience of industry and government officials at a White House event on Wednesday.

Agencies' customer service plans must draw from private sector practices and must include at least one signature initiative that the agency plans to implement rapidly, the order said.

Agencies must also develop plans to gather customer feedback through their websites and through other channels such as email, U.S. mail and phone contact with an eye toward future improvements, the order said.

Zients described the customer service plans as both a way to improve citizens' experience with government and a way to cut expenses, noting that private sector companies have recorded significantly improved customer satisfaction with Web-based customer service systems than with phone-in operations and at a significantly lower cost.

He joked that the government might benefit from a latecomer advantage.

As an example of a strong-performing government customer service system Zients cited the Internal Revenue Services' e-file system, which costs the government about 17 cents per online return submitted compared with about $3.66 per paper form. It gets a positive response from about 77 percent of filers compared with 54 percent for the paper system.

"The president has made clear that now more than ever we need to make every taxpayer dollar count," Zients said. "He's also been clear that agencies cannot fall into the trap of viewing decreased funding levels as an excuse for the status quo or for accepting diminished service levels."

A survey of customer satisfaction with about 100 federal websites released on Tuesday gave low and middling marks to several agency sites, among them those of the Treasury Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. But it gave much higher marks to several specialty government sites, such as a benefits calculator offered by the Social Security Administration.

User reactions to the IRS e-file system were not gathered, the survey company said, only results for the larger IRS page.

This story has been updated, to clarify results for the IRS.

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