Backers of bill on federal Web services seek action

A Senate committee is working to clarify accountability language in a House-passed bill that would order agencies to measure citizen satisfaction with government services, including Web interactions, according to several lawmakers.

The House passed the bill, H.R. 404, last July, and it is now pending before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The measure would require the White House Office of Management and Budget to develop standards for "high-quality" customer service and performance metrics to determine whether agencies are meeting those standards.

"The bottom line is we're here for one reason -- and that's to serve the customer," bill sponsor Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Wednesday.

While pursuing a doctorate in government at the University of Texas at Austin, Cuellar wrote a dissertation on performance-based budgeting. And as Texas Secretary of State, he worked to make agencies more customer-friendly and results-oriented through the use of technology.

As to why the bill has not moved further, he said staffers for Senate committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, raised concerns about some of the reporting provisions.

"Office of Personnel Management and federal employee unions are among the organizations that have submitted comments" regarding the bill's language, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, Akaka's spokesman, said Thursday.

The legislation would direct agencies to collect information from their customers about the quality of the agencies' services, and then report that data to the president and Congress. Agency heads would have to designate a "customer-relations representative" to oversee implementation.

Akaka has not taken a position on the bill yet, Broder Van Dyke said, confirming that Akaka, his staff, Lieberman and Cuellar are working to address the issues.

Akaka said, "While each agency has its own focus and mission that sometimes weighs more heavily on directly serving the American public, I plan to continue working with Congressman Cuellar to look at the effectiveness of agency programs as we move into the second session" of the 110th Congress. Cuellar's staff expects to meet with the senators next week.

Subcommittee ranking Republican George Voinovich of Ohio added, "I will continue to work with Senator Akaka in giving all bills pending before the subcommittee due consideration."

As an incentive, Cuellar's bill would allow agency heads "to pay a cash award ... to employees for demonstrated excellence in customer service." Every agency public Web site would have to post customer-service guidelines and customer-service contact information.

Larry Freed, president and CEO of the online satisfaction consultant ForeSee Results, said government service historically has been difficult to quantify. He said the American Customer Satisfaction Index would be a great model for rating agencies because of its credibility and reliability. Freed's company develops Web strategies for clients based on ACSI's e-government indicators.

"The measurement today is that people get voted out of office ... but that's a slow process," he said.

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