On April 27th President Obama issued an Executive Order that shook the public sector… You can read this ground breaking direction here, but the gist is that we need to improve customer service in government. Not feeling shaken? Not stirred? I’m not shocked.
Since 1993, all three Presidents from both parties have added their personal twist to the age old problem of improving our image in the eyes of our customers, and of course tax paying voters. President Obama’s twist is a call to use technology, and, hold on tight, innovative technology, to not just meet expectations, but to exceed them.
Still not shaken? Let’s look at the evolution that got us here. In 1993, President Clinton set forth on a path that encouraged the executive departments to survey their customers, set goals based on those surveys, and the work to improve services until we meet those goals.
President Bush extended this effort with what he considered “Building Communities” with our customers. I couldn’t make this up. It wasn’t enough to survey them, to really understand expectations, we needed to have them over for dinner.
Now Obama has a call to build upon these efforts with “best practices” in the public sector, and technology. I don’t think anyone would argue we have a reputation in government as being less than customer focused, so I hope we can all agree this is a noble road we’re on… But it might be the wrong road.
I was working for the DoD in 1993 and just recently left government to join the dark side. I’ve seen how these orders have played out not only at the federal level, but in states and localities as well. Most of us have attended more customer service training than we could throw a fish at, and yet we still see this as a major issue for government as a whole.
Just two weeks before Steve asked me to write about this topic for GovLoop, I posted this on my site PublicGreat. ( http://www.governing.com/blogs/public-great/Shame-on-Us.html ) i wanted to make the point that entire industries exist just to help people navigate our systems and deal with “bad service”. Shame on us. In 15 years not much has changed for the better and certainly not globally.
I suggest at the heart of the problem is not our lack of customer service. More than almost any other industry we empathize with our customers. Why else would someone work a child abuse hotline for 20 years, when they could be a Walmart greeter for more pay and never have to hear another heart wrenching story of a hurt child? Why does an Eligibility tech come to work every morning when they know their case load is larger than they can possibly tackle? Because if they don’t, their customers don’t get TANF benefits, and they don’t eat. The issue is rarely that we don’t understand the customers expectations, or that we enjoy sitting in the break room joking about how many times Bill had to come back with different paperwork in order to get his truck registered. We get it, we just can’t fix it.
Well, we can. We just don’t. Because we’re too busy trying to keep up with demand, or catch up from the latest week of mandatory customer centered training. So we are reminded to smile when we tell Sally it will be another 2 weeks before we can get back to her.
Truth is, we work in some really messed up systems. We like to imagine them as pipes, pipes that are twisted and gunked up with decades of CYA, piles of backlog, and procedures so complex and at times contradictory that we can’t possibly stay in compliance with all of them. The result is a drizzle of productivity that leads to long lines and customer frustration. It’s not that we don’t get it, it’s that it takes a dedicated team with time and tools to come in and fix our plumbing.
As much as I applaud the League of Past Presidents (and current company) the answer is not to primarily focus on the customer service. Our focus should be on our pipes, and how we do the work we do and getting customers the water they thirst for from better working pipes.
Now this is not a call to abandon the customer. It is a call to abandon customer service initatives. It’s not about the service. It’s not about how we treat people, or if we smile or not. It’s about are we getting people what they need in the way they need it. Unless we address that, all the smiles and flying fish in the world are just foforaw.
And while we’re abandoning things, can we agree to table the technology discussion until we have unkinked and cleaned the pipes of government? The last thing we need is to spend a billion dollars putting a nice coating on the same twisted up pipe. I worked in the CIO’s office for a state for years, and this idea that technology will be our saving grace is not only ludicrous, it’s dangerous. Automating a bad system and hoping for radical change is like painting a car that doesn’t run and hoping that fixed the engine.
Instead, let’s work on the engine and then the paint will complete the car. It’s not that technology isn’t important and needed, it just shouldn’t be the first tool we pull out of the box.
Want to see radical changes to how customers view government – let’s get stirred up and radically change our work.