Who Is the Customer?

We had to start with the basics. Some agencies had never thought in terms of customers before, so the National Performance Review conducted workshops for agencies to figure out who their customers were. In private business it's easy -- the customer is the person with the money, the person who might go to your competitor. But most agencies have no competition, and they saw Congress as their source of money. We even had complaints from taxpayers saying they were the government's owners, not its customers. They are right about being the owners, but they are customers, too, like a Ford Motor Company stockholder who buys a Ford.

For some agencies, it was easy to find the customer. The Social Security Administration serves beneficiaries. Veterans Affairs serves vets and their families. But what about agencies that don't usually serve the public directly?

The Department of Education exists to help those trying to learn, their ultimate customer. Yet the Department doesn't directly operate schools or other learning programs. To get its job done, the Department has to work well with educating organizations, getting them what they need to do their jobs. It's a three party deal -- feds, educators, learners -- and thinking about that may produce new answers. For example, the Department wants to reach kids with a literacy program. Libraries are looking for new services to attract the public. Kids like pizza. The result is Read*Write*Now, which reached a million kids this past summer.

In the first weeks of summer, Read*Write*Now kits went from the Department to 16,500 libraries. The libraries signed up kids and learning partners -- family, teens, seniors, or neighbors. Kids agree to read and write for 30 minutes each day, learn a vocabulary word a day, and meet with the learning partner for help once or twice per week. When the kids finish the challenge, they get a coupon for a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut, who is a partner in the whole thing.

A different kind of customer relationship exists for regulators -- if someone wants to comply with the regulations, treat them right, find out what they want, and give them all the help you can because that will increase the compliance. That's why Richard Hansen, who chairs a transportation committee of Illinois school officials wrote to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor about Zorka Martinovich and her investigation of an employee complaint. He described her as someone to "work with" rather than someone they have to "deal with." That's why OSHA compliance officers work with S.D. Warren employees who are looking for safety hazards. It's why EPA sits down with Intel to tailor an air permit. And it's why, in public reports, FDA, in an ongoing pilot program, includes company fixes for problems found in FDA inspections. Throughout government, regulators are adding customer-friendly ideas because they get better results than they got with badges and fines. It's a key tool in building partnerships to reach regulatory goals.

When we thought it through, we found that the idea of customers actually worked for all agencies, at least for part of what they do. It's even true for the law-enforcement agencies. The Justice Department is not planning to put mints on pillows in prisons, but they are thinking "customers" when answering requests from other law-enforcement organizations for criminal histories and fingerprints checks. And customer approaches certainly apply to treatment of victims and witnesses.

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