Government narrows gap on customer service

The federal government is inching closer to the private sector in overall levels of customer satisfaction, according to a new survey. In a survey of 8,179 customers of federal agencies, the government received an overall score of 68.6 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)-the same score it received in 1999. The average private sector score was 71.2, slightly less than the 1999 score of 71.9. The survey was conducted by the University of Michigan Business School, the American Society for Quality and consulting firm Arthur Andersen. "The survey shows government continues to close the gap [with the private sector] in customer satisfaction," said Morley Winograd, director of Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR). Winograd also pointed out that federal agencies surpassed or were comparable to the private sector in six of nine customer service categories measured by the survey. "When you take into account that the private sector doesn't include regulatory or tax issues, as we do in our customer service, it shows that government is doing as well as the average private sector activity," Winograd said. The survey interviewed customers of 30 federal agencies, including 27 of the 32 agencies NPR has designated "high impact" because they are involved in more than 90 percent of the government's interactions with the public. As in 1999, agencies determined which customers were interviewed for the survey, and made widely varying choices. While the Veterans Benefits Administration chose a random sample of veterans to be surveyed, the Environmental Protection Agency selected reference librarians who use the EPA Web site and respond to environment-related questions, leading one expert to question the validity of EPA's score on the survey. "I think [the survey] is good if you want to know what reference librarians think of the EPA. If you want to know what business thinks, it's not," said Bob Stone, a partner in Public Strategies Group Inc. and former director of NPR. In March, the University of Michigan and its partners will release a companion to the 2000 survey that includes the views of several more consumer groups, providing a broader indication of the service government customers are receiving, according to Winograd. "This year, the Agriculture Department surveyed international travelers. Next year, they are also going to interview school lunch recipients and farmers who receive loans, providing a much wider reading of customer satisfaction," Winograd said. For the second straight year, agencies provided a level of customer service that exceeded customer expectations by a wide margin-almost seven percentage points on the ACSI scale. That, said Winograd, may simply indicate that customers don't yet expect agencies to provide high levels of service. "I hope the next administration will continue to use this data to focus efforts to improve service throughout government," Winograd said. The ASCI index provides each agency with a numerical score from 0 to 100 based on customer expectations, perceived quality and perceived value. Since 1994, the ACSI has become a gauge of customer satisfaction for more than 200 private companies in 34 industries, ranging from the Adolph Coors Co. to J.C. Penney to Zenith Electronics Corp.

2000 Customer Satisfaction Survey Results

Federal government (aggregate) 68.6
Service through local and state agencies
Administration for Families and Children Parents of Head Start students 83
Food and Nutrition Service WIC program recipients 83
Housing and Urban Development Department Community Development Block Grant recipients 68
Individuals with Earned Benefits
Social Security Administration Recent retirement benefit recipients 84
Veterans Health Administration Outpatients at VHA clinics 78
Health Care Financing Administration Recent Medicare beneficiaries 74
Office of Personnel Management Federal retirees and annuitants 73
Veterans Benefits Administration Veteran compensation/benefit claimants 58
Public Information
NASA Educators participating recently in NASA Center programs 86
Education Publications, Education Primary users of education publications 79
General Services Administration Users of the Consumer Information Center 79
Environmental Protection Agency Reference librarians accessing EPA Web site 68
Census Bureau Data distributors in depository libraries, state and local agencies 67
Recreational Land Users
National Park Service Recreational visitors 73
U.S. Forest Service Recreational visitors 68
Bureau of Land Management Recreational visitors 62
Applicants and Users
U.S. Mint Buyers of numismatic and commemorative coins 84
Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster assistance recipients 73
Student Financial Assistance, Education Dept. Electronic applicants for Title IV aid 70
Patent and Trademark Office Recent individual patent and trademark applicants 59
National Science Foundation Grant applicants, 1998 58
International Travelers
Bureau of Consular Affairs, State Dept. Recent passport applicants/renewals 76
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service International travelers 76
Immigration and Naturalization Service International travelers 71
Customs Service International air travelers 70
Household Consumers
Food and Drug Administration Principal grocery shoppers and food preparers 68
Food Safety and Inspection Service Principal grocery shoppers and food preparers 65
Tax Filers
Internal Revenue Service Electronic tax filers 75
Internal Revenue Service All paper tax filers 48
Regulation Users
Federal Aviation Administration Commercial pilots 56
Occupational Safety and Health Administration Health and safety professionals 54

Source: National Quality Research Center, University of Michigan Business School

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