Federal agencies slip slightly on customer satisfaction survey

The public's overall satisfaction with government services fell slightly from an all-time high last year, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, released Monday.

Federal agencies earned a score of 70.2 out of a possible 100 points in 2002, down roughly 1.5 percent from last year's score of 71.3. Even though the overall score for satisfaction with government services fell, some agencies drew nearly even with private, nonmanufacturing companies. The average score for the public and private sectors combined rose from 72 to 73.1 over last year.

The annual survey, conducted by the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research Center, measures customer satisfaction with seven economic sectors, 35 industries, 190 companies and federal and local government agencies. In 2002, the surveyors questioned 39 different groups of customers who receive government services. Of the 39, 17 groups participated in last year's survey and 22 were new additions.

This year, the survey included satisfaction scores for government Web sites for the first time. The government outpaced private companies in this category, earning an average of 74 points, versus 73.1 points for the private sector. Within the government, the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Women's Health received the highest score-80 points.

Larry Freed, CEO and president of ForSee Results, one of several companies providing financial support for the survey, attributed the high satisfaction with government Web sites to their ability to reduce costs of communicating and to provide the public with access to consistent, high-quality information.

The slight drop in overall satisfaction with government services is largely because Medicare recipients and corporate tax filers were less pleased in 2002, according to Claes Fornell, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School. Satisfaction with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services fell 3 percentage points, from a score of 79 in 2001 to a score of 76 this year. And businesses filing taxes with the Internal Revenue Service were also less satisfied in 2002, contributing to a 9 percent decrease in the agency's score.

But survey analysts praised the IRS for improving satisfaction among individual tax filers. Satisfaction in this subgroup earned a score of 62, representing a 22 percent increase since 1999. "No organization, whether private or public, has shown a similar improvement in such a short period of time," Fornell wrote in an analysis of the survey.

The improved score is a tribute to the simplicity and efficiency of electronic filing, according to Fornell. The IRS scored a 78 with electronic filers, compared with a 53 from paper filers.

Of federal agencies participating in the survey, the U.S. Mint, which sells coins to collectors, received the highest satisfaction rating, even though its score dropped from 88 points last year to 84. Survey respondents also gave the Social Security Administration high marks. The agency received a score of 83 from retirement benefits recipients. The Veterans Health Administration, part of the Veterans Affairs Department, received 81 points from inpatients at VA medical centers.

Fornell also praised the Federal Aviation Administration for improvement "at a time when airlines are under significant security and financial pressures." The FAA's score rose 9 percent in the past year, from 59 points to 64 points. An effort to serve pilots better by presenting policies and regulations in clear, plain language, helped boost the score, according to Fornell.

In general, customers tended to rate regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration-which earned 67 points-lower than service-based agencies like SSA. Also, agencies need to focus on timely service delivery, according to Fornell. Overall, government agencies rated an average of 80 points on professionalism, 82 points on courtesy and 73 points on timeliness.

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