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  Daily Briefing  

June 1, 1999

Government gears up for huge customer survey

By Brian Friel

Federal agency leaders and outside experts met last week to prepare for the first-ever governmentwide customer satisfaction survey.

Officials from 30 agencies began planning the survey, which is designed to tell them how well government now meets its customers' expectations. The survey is part of a broader customer satisfaction initiative, which aims to identify additional methods of measuring and improving customer service.

"The goal of this effort is to make customer satisfaction something we think about every day," said James Dean, deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration, who is overseeing the survey.

The 30 participating agencies are primarily drawn from Vice President Al Gore's list of "high-impact agencies," which account for 90 percent of the government's interaction with the public, the administration says. Three of the high-impact agencies—the National Weather Service, the Small Business Administration and the Commerce Department's U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service—opted out of the survey. Two non-high-impact agencies—the National Science Foundation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—joined in.


The survey will be administered by the consulting firm Arthur Andersen under a $867,000 one-year contract. The survey is based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a survey program run by the University of Michigan Business School and the American Society for Quality.

Arthur Andersen will poll 250 to 300 customers of each participating agency using the American Customer Satisfaction Index methodology. Results will be published between September and December.

A newly created Committee for Excellence in Customer Satisfaction is charged with guiding the survey effort. The committee includes Postmaster General William Henderson; U.S. Mint Director Philip Diehl; Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees; Ronald Hutchinson, vice president of the Harley Davidson Motor Company; and Clarence E. Anthony, mayor of South Bay, Florida and president of the National League of Cities.

Anthony said he hopes the initiative will help various levels of government share ideas on improving service to citizens. In addition, publicizing customer service initiatives will show private businesses they can learn from government agencies, he said.

"There are some customer focus best practices in the government arena that we can share with the private sector," Anthony said.

At the Thursday meeting, federal representatives expressed concerns about the survey. Charles Jeffress, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, noted that regulatory agencies will have to figure out who to identify as customers and how to weigh feedback from the general public against feedback from regulated communities.

Mint Director Diehl said customer surveys have limited usefulness in providing ideas for improving operations. Colleen Kelly, vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said some agency officials are worried that negative survey results will become fodder for congressional critics at appropriations time.

GSA's Dean said the survey is a way to provide a standardized, objective view of citizens' perception of government service.

"This survey complements what agencies are already doing with other surveys," Dean said. "This captures satisfaction at a much broader level. It also moves away from anecdotal information to an objective assessment of performance."

Gore announced the administration's plan for a survey in January. He also announced plans to evaluate federal executives on a balanced set of measures, including business results, employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.

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