Customer Satisfaction… In Government?

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.

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Wendi Pomerance Brick

After a 20 year career in public service, and a continued career supporting public service, I see the heroic efforts of public servants to provide great service in horrible conditions over and over again, just like described in this post. However, I would argue that we have broadened the discussion of improving service to include all the ways we can improve quality.

The main areas of quality of service continuous improvement are: People, Process, Procedure and Technology.

  • People – offering support, self care, and professional development opportunities throughout a person’s career,
  • Process – streamlining and eliminating waste, breaking down silos, looking a process from a customers’ point of view from start to finish and fixing it,
  • Procedures – updating the outdated ways of doing things because they’ve always been done that way, and
  • Technology – stop automating bad process by streamlining first, then having the business case drive automation.

As described here, creating a culture of service is much more than just looking to people to “be nice.” One of my personal pet peeves is setting up a training class to “fix” customer service. I think that you would agree that’s an unrealistic goal. Improving skills is great, but if you put people back in the same environment, fraught with bad process, procedures and technology, the training is much less likely to “stick.”

Check out this expert from my new book. http://www.thecsaedge.com/documents/ScienceofService_Excerpt.pdf In it, the people issue is put in the perspective of the bigger picture.

Improving the quality of service delivery and ensuring that our customers do have a good experience is important to our external communities and has tremendous benefits to our internal customers as well. Setting up the organization to also focus on our internal customers and helping them to cope with emotional stress and increased work load is critical too.

With that, I applaud efforts to continue the conversation and fix “the big picture” issues, streamline processes, and do everything we can to focus on not just the services we provide, but the way in which we provide those services.

Susan Grow


You make some excellent points! And, you are absolutely right – based on my observation of organizational behavior in both the private and public sectors – people do tend to jump to the “solution” before they understand what the root cause of the problem is. Certainly, it isn’t my intent to imply that President Obama and his staff have done this; my interpretation of the intent is to help agencies remember that we do need to have a citizen-centric perspective and use that perspective to drive the improvements which need to be made that will result in – among other things – improved customer service for citizens.

One way to be aware of citizens’ perspectives is to get feedback from citizens about their experiences – through customer feedback surveys, through focus groups, through a variety of ways – to assess and measure what is driving their satisfaction, i.e, what is important to them. But this is simply the starting point. All too often I have observed agencies getting feedback from their citizens/customers and then just putting the information on a shelf. The message that I believe Shelley Metzenbaum (sp?) is trying to convey is that agencies need to be USING the informaion to make decisions about how to affect/impact the mission. Of couse, Ms. Metzenbaum is not talking only of customer feedback; the focus she emphasizes is all the data that is available to agencies which may include customer feedback.

Bill, you are absolutely right that many of our processes and procedures in government have a huge opportunity for improvement. I would love to see government agencies get to the point that the customer service provided by the government is the envy of the private sector. And, I do think it is possible if we start with understanding what our customers/citizens are experiencing when the interact with us, use that information and our other data/information, and WITH CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE as our FOCUS, get to the root cause of our “challenges” in our processes and procedures and then evaluate the various ways, including tools and technology, to fix the processes to make it EASY for customers/citizens to deal with government agencies.

Some questions we should be asking ourselves:

Do we truly understand what our customers/citizens are experiencing when they deal with us?

Do we take the time to do the analysis of what is causing the “challenges”?

Have we actually defined the problem properly?

Have we examined the root cause(s) of the problem?

There are some departments/agencies that are using such tools as Lean Six Sigma to try to get rid of waste in processes and they have had some successes for shorter term projects. But, as you point out, Bill, there are major systemic challenges to be tackled. Only when we know the true root causes should we consider what tools and technology should be applied to improve whatever metrics are in need of improvement…and if we are focused on what would make it easier for our customers/citizens, including the qualiy of customer service, the intent of the Executive Order – IMHO- will be carried out.

Terri Jones

Hear, hear. And, while we are at it, could we stop bashing public servants so they are able to come to work feeling proud to be a part of a force that improves our communities. I think if you can feel proud of what you are doing, it helps to give you the patience to be customer-driven, especially on the bad days.

I agree about technology with one thought, could it be that if we could relieve some of the tedium of jobs with technology, we would find more time and job satisfaction? And if so, could that help us approach our customers with more energy and patience? During my time in government, I loved working with people and hated shuffling paper, even when I went to night meeting after night meeting for community revitalization work.

Like most folks, I felt better if I could see the results of my commitment. And I was lucky, I worked for agency that let me get out and work directly with folks. The more removed that you are from the results, the harder it is to fight off the tendency to be complacent. I felt that when I worked with my customers, I was representing my state but I was also making a personal commitment to them and to help. This is easier when you can see your customer – versus the phone, the letter, the email, etc.

Perhaps it is time to find ways to automate boring tasks and restore travel budgets so that people can work with their communities, and the constituent and the public servant can look each other in the eye and renew their commitment to each other….

Bill Bott

Thanks for the comments – these things aree always better with dialog.

And Terri, I cannot agree more that govies, or public servants, or civil servants, or whatever lable we put on ourselves – need to remember that our work is noble. We’re all about healthy communities, clean air, educated kids, safe places to lilve… What could be more noble? And once we connect with that – let’s get greedy for ore of it!