Agencies reach all-time high in customer satisfaction

Citizen satisfaction with the federal government's services reached a new high this year, placing some agencies above the private sector average, according to an annual index from the University of Michigan.

The government received a score of 72.1 out of a possible 100 on the 2004 American Customer Satisfaction Index published by the National Quality Research Center at the University of Michigan's business school. The 2004 score tops the 2001 score of 71.3 as the highest grade.

The federal score is compiled using telephone surveys of about 20,000 people who use government services.

Claes Fornell, the professor who oversees the index, said it's not surprising to see citizen satisfaction with government services at the same level as the private sector, considering the government's current spending levels.

"This is not a question of shrinking government, which would make it difficult to maintain this ranking," Fornell said. "People are very satisfied with their government services, and we are paying for it with the budget deficit."

He said that recent emphasis on agencies' service to the public through the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act and the President's Management Agenda may also be making the difference.

"When we see public opinion polls about the government, in general we get fairly negative results," Fornell said. "But that is very different from having actual experience with government services and government workers."

Courtesy and professionalism of government personnel, according to the index, is at an all-time high at 85 and 84, respectively.

One reason for the boost in federal scores was the performance of the IRS, thanks to its online filing system. Electronic tax filers gave the IRS a score of 78, while paper tax filers gave it a 52. Large and midsize business tax filers gave the agency its lowest score, 51.

"The IRS has looked at the results [in the past] and figured out what they can do to improve, and they did it," Fornell said. "There is no question about it. They've done a very good job."

Agencies providing health-related services continued to be the top performers, with the Veterans Health Administration receiving a score of 84 for inpatient services and 83 for outpatients. Private sector hospitals scored 76.

The online service Medline Plus, which provides information site from the National Institutes of Health, scored an 86, while commercial news and information sites scored a 75. The Health Resources and Services Administration earned one of the highest ACSI scores ever with a 91 for its work with state grant recipients, and Medicare scored a 76.

Some of the index's low performers were the National Archives & Records Administration's Access to Archival Databases site, which received a 59, and the General Services Administration's main site with a 55, down from 56 in 2003.

In a similar study, an index measuring citizen satisfaction with 54 of the federal government's Web sites continued to move up, with a score identical to the overall government score of 72.1. The quarterly e-government report, which surveyed 40,000 government Web site users in a 90-day period, is produced by the Michigan business school with the help of ForeSee Results, the American Society of Quality and the CFI Group.

The e-government index, which continually surveys government Web site visitors through online forms, showed a 14 percent increase in first-time users. Analysis by ForeSee Results states that first-time customers often are difficult to please and tend to give satisfaction ratings that are 5 to 10 percent lower than regular users.

"[F]ailing to make a good first impression could be slowing the growth of e-government," Fornell said. "The growth in first-time visitors is a good-news, bad-news scenario for e-government Web sites."

The main problems citizens had with government Web sites were poor search functions and overall navigation. A quality search function ranked high on 92 percent of the Web sites surveyed in determining a citizens' opinion of the site.

"Our expectations are being set by the Googles and Yahoos of the world," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results. "Search and navigation are scores that are consistently low. One way is to utilize the Googles and Yahoos, but they don't have it all figured it out yet…the trick is to find ways to compensate for the inherent challenges that search presents" by bolstering a site's navigational features.

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