No Excuses

By Tom Shoop

September 1, 2013

Some years ago, I wrote a rather churlish column in this magazine 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 a then-impending requirement that U.S. citizens use passports for travel to Canada and Mexico.

Apparently, the bureau has done a good job—at least in one of its largest passport offices, in New York City. In a piece in Slate called “The Most Efficient Office in the World,” Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan say the operation is in the “vanguard of workplace effectiveness.” Users of Yelp, the online reviewing site, give the New York Passport Agency 4.5 out of 5 stars for service. Its offices are well-organized, managers and employees are highly trained, and the focus is squarely
on moving people quickly through the application and approval process. 

Fisman and Sullivan compare the New York passport operation to other government offices, such as the U.S. Postal Service and local motor vehicle departments. But it’s worth stacking all of these government organizations up against private companies. Indeed, next time you’re stuck in a long line at a big-box store, endlessly on hold with 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 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 . . . 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, 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 dedicated 30-year public servant and a passionate advocate for superior service. (Politicians take note: The two are not mutually exclusive.)

No doubt, a big part of Hoffman’s success is that he’s in it for the long haul. What about officials in the opposite position—people temporarily placed in leadership positions as acting heads of agencies? Charlie Clark focuses on them in this month’s cover story. Even with a recent break in the logjam of confirmations, government still has a big problem with temps at the top. Several major federal operations are still run by acting officials who lack the long-term authority and status that would enable them to get the most out of their organizations. 

Still, the best of these acting chiefs don’t use their figurehead status as an excuse. They knuckle down, focus on key initiatives, and generally act like long-term bosses, even if they’re not. In many cases, acting chiefs are effective because they are career civil servants who know the ins and outs of their agencies and have earned the trust of employees. In others, the provisional leaders learn to rely on career managers. Either way, the key is committed leadership and a focus on the basics of effective management. 

By Tom Shoop

September 1, 2013