During the past year, EPA has been reviewing and revising its customer service standards, working to learn what our customers think of the services and products we provide, and modifying our processes to accommodate customers' needs.
Based on external and internal comments, we simplified standards to focus them more clearly on the core services and products we provide our customers: public information, permitting, rulemaking, enforcement and compliance assurance, pesticides registration, state/tribal/local grants, . partnership programs, and research grants. In addition, universal standards have been established that apply to all the work employees perform across the Agency, including service for and interactions with one another.
EPA has conducted or is conducting a number of surveys of its customers. These surveys have helped EPA develop better policies and improve the operation and usefulness of its services. Many examples of such activities are described below.
EPA is working in many ways to increase public access to information and data. Through the Internet Public Access Server we routinely collect statistics that show frequency of use, domain of user and number of files. An online feedback form is always available and comments are reviewed for appropriate referrals throughout the Agency.
Since January 1996, EPA's Government Locator Information Service (GILS) has been providing directions to and descriptions of over 235 major public information resources at EPA. GILS resides with other EPA information at one Internet address on the WorldWideWeb: http://www.epa.gov. Over 93,000 online accesses of the GILS have been made during the last nine months. More than 2,200 electronic mail requests for additional assistance in finding EPA information have been answered.
In August 1995, EPA's web site address received 935,000 "hits." By August 1996, the number had risen to 3,500,000. The growth in both interest and information was phenomenal.
One example of our users' comments extracted from the online feedback form follows:
"I was checking references on lead poisoning. It was very easy to check the different areas and read the text. I think that you have constructed your pages well."
Though some found it reasonably easy to find information, others complained that it was difficult to locate what they wanted unless they knew the structure of the Agency. Much of our information was located by organization rather than by topics of interest to the public. Over the past year there has been an extensive effort and a total redesign of the EPA world wide web site home page. In October, we will launch the new home page which will be even more user-friendly.
EPA's service contracts for operation of public information centers, electronic mail and telephone services now routinely include measurements and require tracking for timeliness and level of effort. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Hotline (SDWH) contract specifies a minimum level of customer service, including short " on hold" time ( > 80 % of people reach a specialist within 60 seconds), sufficiently trained Information Specialist (95 % of the inquiries can be answered immediately or within 15 minutes of look-up time.) The SDWH contract holds the contractor to EPA Customer Standards for Hotlines and characterizes accurate, appropriate and courteous responses. Offerers are evaluated on the adequacy of their ability to ensure quality answers and customer satisfaction. EPA has specified a quality assurance plan to verify performance.
The SDWH developed a monthly and yearly index of questions and answers by topic to speed response to people with similar questions. Staff also routinely prepares fact sheets and questions/answers based on actual consumer questions. Recently the SDWH did an informal survey of how one customer group, state agencies, was using the Hotline. Results indicated that state representatives were not taking full advantage of the depth offered by the Hotline. Usually their requests were for documents, not help with regulatory or technical topics. As a result, the staff did specific outreach to states and has seen an increase in their use of its broader services. To ensure its customer referrals to state officials are accurate, the SDWH staff worked with state drinking water agencies to develop a list of specific state level contacts by customer type (regulated community, the public, laboratories, private well owners etc.).
During the government shutdowns, rather than simply say the hotline was closed, staff prepared and provided a detailed recorded message with referrals and phone numbers so that callers could locate another source of information about their drinking water concerns. In addition, the Drinking Water Hotline made its expertise available by e-mail by providing a place on the Office of Water's web site for people to leave questions for the Hotline. E-mail traffic has increased tenfold in the four months the service has been available. Hotline staff also coordinate closely with EPA's general telephone locator service to increase appropriate customer referrals to SDWH.
The Offices of Solid Waste & Emergency Response, Water, Air & Radiation and Pollution Prevention and Toxics joined together to develop a quality measurement program for their dockets during 1996. Two focus groups, one of users, the other of docket managers, assisted in the survey design. The sample was of 859 United States residents who used docket services between May and August 1995; 208 returned the survey.
Reliability (the ability to perform the promised service consistently, dependably and accurately) was the most important quality dimension to customers. On a five point scale, the Air docket performed at a 4.25 level, but in responsiveness (waiting time) and tangibles (available copiers in good working order), customers saw room for improvement. Slightly lower satisfaction levels were reported for the other dockets; areas needing improvement were also similar. Most users preferred telephone contact and paper responses.
Many new electronic services and facilities improvements are now being considered. Survey findings will help shape the provision of docket services as we plan for the new Headquarters building. The baseline established by the survey will be revisited as we improve and reevaluate the docket services.
The Office of Administration and Resource Management, Information Resource
Management Division (IRMD) in Cincinnati, Ohio, manages distribution of EPA publications
through the National Center for Environmental Publications and Information (NCEPI ). Over a
two year period, NCEPI surveyed clients on its performance as well as for suggestions on how to
improve services. Because of the feedback received, IRMD has integrated the NCEPI database of
holdings with the EPA On-Line Library System to broaden the accessability of EPA publications
to customers. In addition IRMD has recently added on-line ordering via the Internet as an option
that will further simplify the process of requesting EPA publications.
The Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP), in its attempt to improve its pesticides registration services and communications with customers - the regulated community, other government agencies, environmental organizations and the public -- has conducted a number of surveys. To identify where improvements needed to be made, OPP conducted a series of baseline surveys to identify what was most important to customers and how satisfied they were. Input from the surveys guided OPP in revising its customer service standards which were circulated for comment late in 1995 and in reviewing potential process changes.
Based on analysis of three surveys, three areas for improvement were targeted: telephone responsiveness, timeliness and consistency in final regulatory decisions, and earlier involvement of states/EPA regions in decision making and priority setting of program goals. One survey focused on 150 customers of the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network (toll-free telephone service), another focused on state and regional office representatives' perceptions of and recommendations to OPP. The third, a mail survey, queried 700 randomly selected registrants and 40 environmental groups about the quality of OPP service. The last survey showed that the expectations of registrants and environmental groups regarding the timeliness of decisions, clarity and accessibility of guidance, and service professionalism were not met. OPP is working to improve customer satisfaction.
Another of our core processes, permitting, has just begun to survey customers. A third process, state, tribal and local grants distributed a survey in August 1996, and has just begun analyzing the responses. The survey, distributed to more than 400 primary customers, should provide first-hand feedback on how the Agency's current grants process is functioning. The survey instrument consisted of an easy-to-follow question and answer format covering a variety of grant-related process topics including: overall customer satisfaction levels, administrative response times, quality of grant guidance and several other more specific grants processing areas. In addition, the survey included a separate section which asked respondents to comment on the draft standards that were developed by the grants core process work group earlier this year. (Survey sample attached.)
Survey packets were mailed to a randomly selected subset of 400 customers.
o State program contacts in each of the 50 states (air program-11 states; drinking water program-9 states, pesticide program-10 states; waste program-10 states; wastewater program-10 states)
o Program contacts in 3 territories (drinking water program-Virgin Islands, Samoa; wastewater program, Puerto Rico)
o Program contacts in 30 local jurisdictions (air program-5 locals; drinking water program-9 locals, pesticide program-2 locals; waste program-5 locals; wastewater program-9 locals)
o Program contacts in 30 Tribal governments As part of the Wetlands Program Strategic Planning Process, thirty-two interviews were conducted across the country with representatives of stakeholder groups such as environmental, agriculture, industry, private landholders and other regulated communities, as well as federal, state and local government agencies. During the interviews, which were conducted in person whenever possible and by telephone in some cases, four key questions were asked of all:
1. What is the EPA Wetlands Program good at; what is it doing right?
2. What do you think needs to be improved?
3. What would be your priorities for the Wetlands Program?
4. What questions would you like us to ask ourselves as part of the strategic planning process?
The Program confirmed what it was doing right, with some suggestions for improvement, (including a strong desire for increased field presence to build relationships with state and local regulators and the regulated community), and found a high level of support for EPA's technical assistance role, developing strong scientific information, and undertaking efforts to share it. The Headquarters and Regional interviewers also heard that they need to demonstrate more sensitivity to the economic hardships imposed on small landowners, to place more emphasis on exploring incentives/inducements for achieving compliance as an alternative to regulation and enforcement, and to provide a clear statement of wetlands policy. Among the priorities identified were: stronger enforcement and regulatory effort, more consistent and predictable compliance and enforcement, more opportunities for collaboration with state and local agencies and with the private sector, greater integration of watershed planning and wetlands work, and expanded outreach. Some urged that EPA provide conflict resolution training for staff; others suggested we find ways to take a more systems-oriented, holistic approach to wetlands management. It is important to many that EPA ensure the quality and credibility of the science upon which we base wetlands policies and decisions, and to seek ways to help others develop strong monitoring and assessment efforts.
This interview process, though very limited in numbers, demonstrated the important advantages of face-to-face interaction with customers, and of designing interview questions designed both to elicit people's fundamental feelings as customers and provide lots of opportunity for dialogue. The results were valuable to the policy and plan development process that followed. The Wetlands Program used the comments to help shape its Strategic Plan for EPA's Wetlands Program and the priorities it will be pursuing over the next several years. The plan is currently in draft and expected to be released early in FY1997; four of its priorities clearly reflect the concerns expressed by the interviewed customers:
1. Increasing state, tribal and local capacity to run wetlands programs, including monitoring and assessment of wetlands quality and extent;
2. Providing staff training in mediation/conflict resolutions skills;
3. Delivering the program to be predictable, flexible and responsive to concerns of stakeholders; and
4. Supporting agencies and stakeholders in watershed planning to integrate wetlands protection work in overall resource protection and economic growth.
Several of our Regional Offices are working directly with customers using their input to change the way we do business. For example, to improve service to customers, EPA's Kansas City Office (Region VII) changed the way they answer their 800-hotline from just providing a telephone operator to providing an information specialist. Many of the calls are answered at the hotline desk without additional transfers. In addition, the Region provides a comment card in all information packets mailed to customers. Some of the comments received include:
"I couldn't believe that I was dealing with the government,"
"The lady was both knowledgeable and courteous," and
"The response was beyond all expectations."
The Region has also been successful in developing a data base to support provision of excellent and reliable referrals to experts in and outside the Regional office to support its 1-800 system.
EPA supports the National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC) to provide technical assistance and referral hotline service to small communities regarding wastewater treatment issues. The NSFC did a customer satisfaction survey in 1995. They listened to customers who told NSFC that they were not ready to move to the Internet. NSFC serves many smaller communities that have not made the leap to the world wide web, but can and do use the NSFC electronic bulletin boards. NSFC will maintain its bulletin boards until a large percentage of users have Internet connectivity. When the customers are ready, the NSFC will switch the bulletin boards to Internet.
When customers told NSFC that they were charged for items advertized as "free", the telephone personnel at NSFC were trained to use a new on-line database that includes cost information. This enables staff to explain total charges at the time of ordering. This center, like our various hotlines, tries to implement suggestions from users of their services on an ongoing basis.
In response to comments from state, tribal and local agencies, environmental organizations and the regulated community, the Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance (OECA) has been increasing public access to its federally collected and managed environmental data. For example, OECA has provided expanded access to its Integrated Data for Enforcement Analysis (IDEA) system. OECA worked with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) to provide mainframe query capability to public users on a tiered access authorization basis (public, state, sensitive information). OECA also worked with the National Center for Environmental Publications and Information (NCEPAI) to provide user documentation. To make IDEA available to the largest population possible, two approaches were used: Internet and hotlines. One hotline provides contact with a person; the other is automated and provides fax-back capability and voice mail for users needing assistance. Finally, for those who cannot access the Internet, there is now a personal computer-based application (IDEAWin) and courses for individuals to learn how to use the system.
To help the regulated community to comply with environmental regulations and avoid the need for EPA and state enforcement activity, EPA has partnered with industry, academic institutions, environmental groups and other regulators to establish Compliance Assistance Centers. The Centers are now operating to serve four industry sectors that are heavily populated with small businesses that face substantial regulations: metal finishing, printing, automotive repair, and agriculture. In addition, OECA has workshops, information packets, plain English (and Korean for the dry cleaning community) guides to regulations, and eighteen industry sector notebooks that provide an in-depth profile of eighteen specific industry sectors -- all to provide technical information in understandable ways that help industrial operations and small businesses comply with federal regulations.
As one of the "President's Vanguard", eleven agencies that have the most frequent or widespread contact with the public, EPA Administrator Carol Browner pledged to dramatically increase EPA's partnerships with business in order to better protect public health and the environment at less cost. Through our twenty-five pollution prevention program, collectively know as Partners for the Environment, we are working with over 6,600 businesses -- from Fortune 500 companies to small shops -- to improve both our partnerships and our efficiency. Together, these programs have reduced toxic emissions by 750 million tons, saved 110 trillion BTU, and recycled 1.8 million tons of solid waste in 1995. They also saved $435 million in 1995, and we are confident that 1996 figures will be even more impressive, proving that these partnership programs are not only good for the environment and the public health, they also make good business sense.
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