A Mixed Verdict on Customer Service at Five Agencies

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With customer service now an Obama administration cross-agency priority goal, managers need to improve their use of performance measures well as their public presentation of customer service standards, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The auditors’ mixed verdict on compliance with the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act covered Customs and Border Protection, the Forest Service, Federal Student Aid, the National Park Service and two services within in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

GAO found that that all five agencies provided customers with opportunities to submit feedback, including comments and complaints, but none of the agencies' standards included all of the key elements of customer service standards—goals, measures and transparency.

“Measuring performance allows agencies to track the progress they are making toward meeting those standards and gives managers crucial information on which to base decisions as well as to update those standards, when necessary,” the watchdog wrote. “Thus, if agencies do not measure performance to track progress toward meeting customer service standards then they risk failing to meet the needs of their customers.”

As an example, GAO noted that the Forest Service and the Park Service do not have guidance for when to elevate customer comments from the local level up to the agency level. “As a result, these agencies may not be effectively reviewing and addressing customer concerns across the agency,” said the report addressed to Sens. Thomas Carper, D-Del., and Mark Warner, D-Va., of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Overall, Customs and Border Protection offered the best model, GAO noted, as it was the only one to have used its customer service plan as a management tool.

The Office of Management and Budget issued updated guidance in July on executing a 2011 executive order on streamlining agency customer service.

GAO recommended that the five agencies update and formalize their customer service plans. They largely agreed.

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