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Strong Governance Is Infrastructure for Great Customer Service

Federal agencies have posted their Customer Service Plans, to comply with President Obama’s Executive Order, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service.” Agencies specifically were to create a signature initiative that improves online service. Many of them are pretty good. Check out all the General Services Administration has on its radar, for example.

But when you put the Customer Service Plans next to the interim Web Improvement Plans, they seem inconsistent. In many cases, you wonder: did the person who wrote one talk to the person who wrote the other? No, they probably didn’t. Why not? Because they weren't under one governance structure.

If we’re going to improve customer service in government, we’ve got to have strong governance. Governance brings consistency, and consistency is essential for great customer service.

I think of “management” as a hierarchical structure with official delegated authorities. “Governance,” on the other hand, usually is a group of management officials or hierarchies who must collaborate and cooperate across the agency to be successful. A governance structure doesn’t have to be hierarchical – it can be collaborative. But everyone in the structure (and everyone in the Agency) has to understand it clearly. Good governance often is hard to pin down and harder to achieve. But it is absolutely critical to improving and maintaining great customer service.

So here we go again…governance. What is it? It’s the infrastructure that enables efficient, effective, collaborative cross-agency (or cross-government) progress. I use 5 “R’s:”

  1. Roles – who, by title, must be involved?
  2. Responsibilities – what must they do?
  3. Relationships – how/when must they interact?
  4. Rules – how will they operate (policies, publication rules, and operating rules)?
  5. Review – how will they make sure that the first four “R’s” are followed (management controls) and opportunities for improvement are spotted (evaluation)?

A couple of years ago, I tacked on two other critical “R’s:”

Reason – what are you trying to achieve? What’s the purpose? Yes – there may be multiple purposes (deliver services, provide information and data, involve the public, share the Agency’s plans and accomplishments). But when push comes to shove, what comes first (and second and third and…)? Everyone needs to know so when it comes to decisions about strategies, priorities, and resources, you're on the same page.

Roadmap – a plan. If you don’t have one, your customer service efforts can go awry really fast, and you can waste precious resources (not to mention making your agency look bad). Everyone needs to be going in the same direction, toward the same goals.

My friend Nicole Burton, who runs GSA’s First Fridays program (they do FREE website usability reviews for agencies) tells me that governance issues are at the root of many of the problems they identify. Right hand doesn’t talk to left hand, even though they’re working on the same customer tasks. Fiefdoms compete or duplicate efforts. No central oversight to make sure the site represents the best of the entire agency and that it works seamlessly, even though content comes from different parts of the agency. Bad governance shows.

Where to start? Begin by assembling the right people:

  • A high ranking management official who has authority to trump all others in the governance structure, if there are issues. It could be the agency head or deputy agency head or some other program-neutral official. It must be someone who is clear on the agency’s customer service objectives and keeps abreast of the actions.
  • The designated Customer Service Official
  • The Chief Communications Officer (because we cannot serve effectively if we don’t communicate effectively)
  • The designated Plain Language Official (because we don’t communicate effectively if we talk gobbly gook)
  • The designated Open Government Official (because being transparent and participatory and collaborative is a big part of great customer service)
  • The Chief Information Officer
  • The Chief Web Manager
  • The New Media Director
  • The head of publications
  • The head of call centers
  • The head of the agency correspondence unit(s)
  • The manager responsible for field operations (because a whole lot of customer service happens out there in field offices)
  • The Chief Procurement Officer (because contractors often are a critical part of our customer service efforts)
  • Top content owners – the executives in charge of program areas or bureaus or other major organization components

Yep – that’s a lot of people. Each of these people has a stake in the goal. These players must be involved in your customer service strategy and operations – working together, going in the same direction - or your customers will suffer.

Next, figure out what each must do and how (and when) they must interact. Write that down, so everyone knows. Start with what you have and then fill in the holes or make fixes. I’ve got a little governance self-assessment worksheet that can help. Don’t forget to figure out those “review” processes to make sure it all works. And figure out consequences – don’t wait for things to break down.

We could be witnessing the beginning of culture change that will make customer service a permanent driving force in government. But it takes a good infrastructure - good governance – to make it work.

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