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Satisfaction with government services drops

For the first time since 2002, American Customer Satisfaction Index score for public services has decreased.

Satisfaction with services offered by the federal government dropped slightly in 2005, marking the first step back in three years, according to an annual index compiled by the University of Michigan.

The government received a score of 71.3 out of a possible 100 points on the 2005 American Customer Satisfaction Index, a drop of nearly 1 point from the 2004 score of 72.1. The government's score last declined in 2002.

The nationwide survey is published annually by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business in partnership with the American Society for Quality and the international consulting firm CFI Group. The government index is compiled in cooperation with the Treasury Department's Federal Consulting Group.

The private sector services index saw a steeper drop in satisfaction in 2005, earning a score of 71.5 out of 100, down from 73.9 in 2004.

Agency participation in the survey is voluntary and costs between $22,000 and $30,000. The scores of agencies included each year to ensure consistency in the results, such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Health Administration, count more heavily toward the government's aggregate satisfaction mark.

Twenty-six agencies measured last year were included in this year's survey. Of those, scores of the health administration's outpatient services underwent one of the most significant declines, from 83 to 80. The agency's inpatient services satisfaction mark also dropped, from 84 to 83.

Patient satisfaction at the VHA may have declined because thousands of veterans are returning from the war in Iraq, said Claes Fornell, the University of Michigan professor who oversees the index.

"The cause of these declines for VHA is unclear.… while any decline is not good news, it is worth noting that satisfaction with private sector hospitals tumbled far more dramatically this year, down 7 percent to a score of 71," Fornell said.

While the overall score for IRS' tax filing system remained the same, the score for online tax filing dropped from 78 to 77 and the rating for the paper system dropped from 52 to 50. The score for large- and mid-sized business corporate tax filing fell from 51 to 48.

"Overall satisfaction with tax filing remains stable because the IRS has been successful in recent years at moving more individuals from paper to electronic filing," Fornell said. "The proportion of electronic filers has nearly tripled since 1998, and because e-filing is a far more satisfying process, this has offset the low and even declining score for paper filers."

One of the better performers on the index was NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information Systems, which scored 78, up from 75 in 2004. Grant recipients from the Fish and Wildlife Service's division of federal assistance had a two point increase to 72.

The Railroad Retirement Board's benefits services received a score of 90, the highest mark of any agency for 2005. Government organizations that deliver benefits typically have higher scores than regulatory agencies, according to Fornell.

"Historical ACSI data has confirmed what we have assumed all along -- that regulatory agencies are presented with a much more difficult task in working to satisfy their customers," Fornell said. "This doesn't mean that it can't be done; it just means that these agencies have to work harder to do it."

Satisfaction with government Web sites reached an all-time high score of 73.9, putting it past the score attained by offline government services, though the number still lags behind the levels of satisfaction found for private sector Web sites.

"With initiatives like the E-Government Act of 2002 just beginning to have their full impact, further improvements in agency website satisfaction could continue to be seen for the near future," Fornell said.