Red Carpet Treatment

Agencies should put themselves in their clients' shoes.

The University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index has dispelled many myths about how well federal employees serve the public since it began measuring customer satisfaction throughout government in 1999.

For example, the index shows that Americans often are pleasantly surprised by the service they receive from government agencies, and that they rate government services about as positively as they rate services from private sector companies. The index also shows that all agencies are not comparable. It's easier for the Railroad Retirement Board to get high scores on customer service than the Internal Revenue Service. The retirement board gives out money; the IRS collects it. Agencies that provide benefits have it easier than agencies that regulate.

The governmentwide survey of customers began in large part because of Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government office, which urged federal managers to start using the word "customers" to describe the public. The idea was that agencies needed to start thinking about the people they deal with each day, the way private companies approach their customers.

The survey showed that it didn't matter so much what they called the public-customers, beneficiaries, regulated industries, taxpayers or clients. But what they did to and for those people had great effect. Customer satisfaction scores for the IRS, for example, are higher among people who file taxes electronically than for those who file paper returns. So the IRS encourages people to file electronically. Patient satisfaction with the Veterans Health Administration slipped last year as hospitals and clinics became busier with Iraq war veterans.

Federal agencies benefit from what could be called the blessing of low expectations. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is a 100-point scale, found that the level of service the public expected last year when interacting with the government was a 69, but they rated the service they got at 79.

Several missteps over the past year no doubt will keep expectations low. Disaster survivors on the Gulf Coast have complained bitterly about the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration, which sometimes seemed to serve the gods of bureaucratic red tape rather than the people in the region. The Veterans Affairs Department analyst's loss of veterans' data demonstrates a laissez faire attitude toward the treatment of personal information entrusted to the government. Legal immigrants languish in long lines looping around citizenship services office buildings, yet there are reservation-style systems that could prevent such arduous waits. (Some offices have started using them.)

In much of government, a customer service culture has yet to take hold. There are always reasons and excuses, usually related to funding and staffing. But there usually are ways to make things better. Jim Murphy, a British high government official working to improve services through technology, did something recently that every federal manager could do. He took a tour to talk with customers. "Many told me they found government Web sites wordy or clunky, or even clumsy," he told attendees at conference on customer service last fall. "Citizen-centered services can only be built by systematically engaging citizens, business and the front line of public services, not treating them as distant downstream consumers of outputs."

It's a simple way to start: Managers and employees must put themselves in their customers' shoes.

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