Some years ago, I wrote a rather churlish column for Government Executive on my experiences with the State Department's passport processing operation. In it, I warned that customer service was about to become a critical issue for State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (which handles passport applications), because of an impending requirement that U.S. citizens use passports for travel to Canada and Mexico.
Apparently, the bureau has done a pretty good job -- at least in one of its largest passport processing offices, in New York City. In a piece in Slate called "The Most Efficient Office in the World," Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan characterize the operation as being in the "vanguard of workplace effectiveness." Reviewers on Yelp, they note, give the New York Passport Agency 4.5 out of 5 stars for service. Its offices are well-organized, managers and employees are well-trained, and the focus is squarely on moving people as quickly as possible through the application and approval process.
Fisman and Sullivan compare the New York passport operation to other government offices, such as the Postal Service and local motor vehicle departments. But it's worth stacking all of these government operations up against private companies. Indeed, next time you're stuck in a long line at a big-box store, endlessly on hold at your cable company's customer service line, or wondering why your luggage didn't arrive on the plane you flew on, ask yourself: Where are you most likely to experience poor customer service these days?
That's not to suggest, of course that all government operations are paragons of efficiency. So why in particular has the New York passport office managed to do so well? It comes down to a single word: management. As Fisman and Sullivan note:
There’s an emerging body of research that chalks up these productivity gaps to the all-too-human ways that different companies (and divisions within a single organization) are managed. The fact that management matters—a lot—shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever worked under a good manager and also a bad one: Good managers coach, listen, support, and make their employees feel like they’re making progress. Bad ones don’t—often in uniquely horrible ways. And if this is true at for-profit companies, why wouldn’t it be true for branches of the government?
In the case of the New York Passport Agency, the effective management starts with its director, Michael Hoffman. He clearly makes the most of every bit of discretion and autonomy he has to motivate employees and keep the focus on efficiency. He's both a 30-year dedicated public servant and a passionate advocate for superior service.
Politicians take note: The two are not mutually exclusive.