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The Government Will See You Now

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When was the last time you interacted with a federal agency to conduct some personal business? If your experience was anything like that of most Americans trying to enroll in a federal program or fulfill some civic duty—clarify a tax issue, update public records—it probably wasn’t great. A report last week by the American Customer Satisfaction Index shows that we are increasingly dissatisfied with the service we receive from government employees and websites.

“Only Internet service providers have a lower customer satisfaction score,” according to the index, which tracks 43 industries. Think about that. More people seem to find it easier to dispute a claim with their health insurer than deal with a federal agency.  

It’s no surprise then that the Obama administration wants to make agencies more responsive to the people they exist to serve. Specifically, the White House says it is committed to “delivering world class customer service:”

The Administration is continuing its efforts to improve the quality, timeliness, and effectiveness of Federal services by developing standards, practices, and tools for agencies to improve their customer service. We have established the Federal Customer Service Awards program, which will recognize individuals and teams who provide outstanding customer service directly to the American people. The awards will begin in the fall of 2015, and will support innovative practices and provide performance incentives to outstanding frontline employees.

We’re all for recognizing superior service in government, but it will take a lot more than an awards program to shift what feels like a culture of complacency at too many agencies, where the unofficial motto seems to be Deal with it. We’re the only game in town. After all, it’s not like you can go anywhere else to file your taxes or sign up for Medicare.

Consider the recent experience of Tammy Flanagan, who writes Government Executive’s “Retirement Planning” column, when she tried to help several friends enroll in new federal health plans during open season. Here’s what happened when she called the Office of Personnel Management to try and track down one retiree’s missing insurance card (the doctor’s office had no record the patient was insured, so resolving this issue was critical):

Call One: Friday around 2:30 pm. After more than 45 minutes on hold, we were given a different number to call.

Call Two: After another wait of more than 45 minutes, the person who answered told us to hold while she located the correct person to assist. The call was dropped and we had to begin again.

Call Three: By the time the call was answered it was past 4:45 pm and I knew that quitting time was 5:00, so we were getting in under the wire. Then the line went dead at 4:50.

Call Four: Monday, 7:00 am. A recorded message said the phones aren’t answered until 7:40 am.

Call Five: Started calling at 7:40, but got the same recording. I kept hitting redial.

Call Six: Finally got through, and the hold time was brief. Cliff and I believed we had reached the correct person. He told us that Cliff’s wife was in fact enrolled in the self and family option under Cliff’s new health coverage, and said that sometimes this information isn’t properly communicated to the new health plan. This would be an easy fix, but the person who handles such changes had not come in yet. He said he would have her handle the change as soon as she got to work. By 1:00 pm, Cliff had still not received confirmation.

Call Seven: We weren’t able to find the nice person we had spoken with earlier, but someone else said they would try to help, and would get back to us a little later.

Call Eight: We waited, and then went higher up the chain of command. The issue was finally resolved.

That’s eight phone calls! Hours of lost time. Blood pressure elevating frustration.

My own recent experience as a “customer” of a federal agency was also less than satisfying when I tried to renew an expired military ID card (my husband is a retired Army officer). Not having done this in more than a decade I didn’t know what documents I might need so I looked for the information online but I couldn’t find anything that applied to my situation. I did, however, discover a lot of angry spouses venting about their own experiences trying to renew their IDs or those of their children.

I finally went to the ID office at Fort Myer. Once you get on base (another story), the office is a walk-in facility open from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., which is great if you live or work on base (of course that would mean your ID card is not expired). Once I found the office I took a number from a machine in the waiting room with a notice admonishing visitors to have all necessary documentation. I still wasn’t certain what that meant, but I had multiple current photo IDs, my recently expired military ID and a copy of my husband’s retirement orders so I was hopeful it would be a simple process. I waited 35 minutes before my number came up, only to learn that I needed to have my husband in tow (not possible), a power of attorney for him (I know there’s one packed away in a box somewhere), or his notarized signature on a form that the clerk printed out (I asked if this form was available online, but he didn’t seem to know).

My second trip to Fort Myer a few days later with the notarized form in hand went much better, but I couldn’t help but think about all the people for whom such a seemingly simple task would have required extraordinary effort. I could make multiple trips to a military base because I work nearby and have a flexible employer, but many people don’t. My husband wasn’t traveling, so getting his notarized signature was as easy as finding a notary public (which isn't to say it's easy, but doable), but many military people—especially military people—are overseas for many months at a time.  

If agencies are serious about improving customer service, they’ll start by asking customers what they want. What’s not helpful? Providing essential government services only during limited weekday hours. Not posting basic information online. Requiring someone to make eight phone calls to verify their enrollment in a federal health plan.

The administration seems to be treating customer service as a mostly technical problem. But it will take a lot more than an army of Web developers to make agencies view customers as, well, customers.

(Image via Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Katherine is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for GovExec.com and Government Executive magazine. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.

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