Charles Dharapak/AP

Bill would make better agency customer service the law

Rep. Cuellar would tie responsiveness to employee performance reviews.

Federal employees’ performance reviews would be expanded to factor in the quality of the service they provide under a bill headed to the House floor with the blessing of good-government advocacy groups.

The Government Customer Service Improvement Act (H.R. 538), introduced in February 2011 by Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, was approved on April 18 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

It would “establish improved customer service standards” for federal agencies by requiring the Office of Management and Budget to develop performance measures for gauging the quality of agency service. Each agency would name a “customer relations representative” to implement the policy and report feedback on the agency’s annual report executed under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. Under the bill, all performance appraisal systems then would include an element of customer service compliance.

“When taxpayers interact with a government agency, they deserve the same timely, reliable assistance they would expect from a private sector business,” Cuellar said in a statement. “My bill would raise the bar for federal customer service and help improve transactions between the American people and the agencies that serve them. Improving customer service from passport issues to student loans to Medicare is long overdue.”

Cuellar singled out the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and the Transportation Security Administration as examples of service agencies that would be affected. He cited a 2011 survey by the IT consulting firm MeriTalk that showed only 31 percent of Americans surveyed were satisfied with the government’s service, a rating up from 24 percent the year before.

The Congressional Budget Office on Monday scored the bill has having no significant costs over the next five years.

President Obama in April 2011 issued an executive order directing every federal agency to develop a customer service plan. But it made no mention of integrating the measures in employee performance reviews. Agencies posted their plans on last October.

OMB then posted a blog by then chief performance officer (now acting budget director) Jeffrey Zients marking the administration’s movements to boost customer service, singling out the Health and Human Services and the State departments as well as the Internal Revenue Service. “We look forward to more improvements ahead, ushering in a new phase for customer service that reduces costs, accelerates delivery times, and improves the overall customer experience,” he wrote.

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, praised the Cuellar bill in an April 18 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging him to put it up for a vote. “Publicizing data on the quality of federal agency customer service will shine a spotlight on agencies that are struggling and highlight best practices at agencies that excel in customer service,” Stier wrote. “The Partnership for Public Service enthusiastically supports this practical legislation and applauds the effort to make our government more responsive to the American people.”

John Kamensky, senior fellow and associate partner at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, also is encouraged by the bill’s movement. “Especially now, with a real decline in citizen trust in government, a bill like this may be helpful if implemented in a vigorous way,” he said.

Kamensky noted that a similar effort was made back in 1994 as part of the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative, though that focused on setting standards and altering citizen perceptions and not on federal employee evaluations. A University of Michigan survey showed that public trust in government was only 21 percent when the initiative got going, but by 2000 the trust levels had more than doubled, he said.

The British government set customer service standards two decades ago, but they seemed to get looser as time passed, Kamensky added. The Cuellar bill contains provisions -- including a third-party evaluator -- to avoid that, he said.

Cuellar’s staff said he is working with House leaders to bring the bill up under suspension of the rules, as occurred with a similar bill in the 110th Congress, when it passed 383-0. They said support for the bill is bipartisan and there is no known opposition, adding that Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the oversight panel, supports the bill.

The Senate never acted on Cuellar’s earlier bill in part, Kamensky notes, due to of concern by some unions that employees would be held accountable for the quality of customer service even though they would not be given sufficient training or new staff to implement the new standards.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report examining customer service at 13 major agencies. It found that most had implemented improvement plans, including using results in employee evaluation, but those results were not posted in ways visible to the public.

On the issue of concern to unions, GAO said, “officials from both unions told us that many employees do not have control over the customer service results achieved, and one said that customer service performance is best addressed at the agency level. This official also cautioned that using customer service measures, such as the time to handle a case, in performance appraisals could lead to employees overlooking details of the case as they attempt to save time.”

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said, “including customer service in performance reviews is not an issue per se, but the unions would typically want to negotiate over how it is applied. For example, if there is a customer satisfaction survey conducted each year, they may want to discuss whether a certain score has to be achieved,” he said.

The Senior Executives Association said it has no position on the Cuellar bill.

Correction: The original published version of this story contained garbled text introduced in editing. It also misattributed Rep. Elijah Cummings’ support for the bill.