President Clinton's Marching Orders

In 1993, President Clinton gave the executive order, and he gave it loud and clear: Every agency that deals with the public should deliver service equal to the best in business. That goal is easy to understand. Government telephone representatives should be as fast and courteous as those at leading mail-order companies. Front-line federal employees should be as eager, able, and happy to serve as the folks at Wal-Mart. The government should serve the people the way America's best companies serve their customers.

America's best companies did not get that good overnight, and neither will the government. But we are making progress, and we are measuring our progress the same way top companies do. Their #1 rule in customer service is that you're not making the grade unless the customers say you are. According to letters from some of our customers, we are headed in the right direction:

This is from a recently retired businessman in Mesquite, Texas. -- "Years of less than ideal contact with a host of government agencies had made a civil service basher' of me -- not particularly kind on my part, but based on experience. And so, on April 8, 1996, I visited the Dallas-Lake June Social Security Office with some trepidation. The waiting room was crowded but I waited only 12 minutes. It's hard to describe what a pleasure that encounter was. Throw out the stereotype of the Civil Service employee. These people were so friendly and helpful that you would have expected that they would be asking favors of us, not the other way around. I can only say that I would hate to be going head to head against you in business. You would win in a walk."(1)

And this is from a lawyer whose client had some unpaid taxes and a delinquent return. -- "With a few telephone calls (no unending busy signals or being put on indefinite hold) to the Baltimore IRS office, I was able to have an installment agreement put in place, the levy released by telecopier, and my client's life able to go on. In 24 years of private practice, I can't recall an easier resolution of what I had anticipated to be a procedural nightmare."

From a San Diego resident who works in Mexico and used to spend hours waiting in line to come home. "What a relief it has been, not to worry about long border lines . I'm not sure how to quantify anxiety, stress, and frustration levels, but the dedicated commuter lanes have minimized these levels significantly. Who knows, maybe I will live longer."(2) Another frequent border crosser notes, "I don't get the stomach aches that I used to." (3)

From an energy analyst who uses Department of Energy technical information. "I would like to thank you especially for the world-class customer service you have given me over the last few years. Employees at Federal Express, Nordstrom's, and Land's End have nothing on you in terms of helpfulness, thoroughness, and responsiveness. As far as I'm concerned, you set the highest standard for excellence." (4)

From a Montana sheriff who had to deal with a derailed train with tank cars leaking deadly chlorine gas; he had to know which way and when the wind would blow. -- "Brenda and [the National Weather Service] staff were there for us, in the field, at all hours, and under all conditions. [Their involvement] goes a long way toward dispelling the stereotype of bespectacled scientists in a windowless room grouped around gauges and radar screens (or a crystal ball )." (5)

From an inventor in Massachusetts. -- "Joe Cheng [an examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office] went out of his way to clarify the specifics of patent law. It is people like Mr. Cheng who make it possible for small, independent inventors like myself to survive...."

From a Detroit police officer who worked security along with the U.S. Secret Service when some international bigwigs visited Motown (movies and TV shows often portray how pleased the local cops are to see the feds show up). --"In the past, when local and federal agents came together, it would seem like the clash of the titans, but not in this case. It's really hard to put into words, how wonderful and refreshing it was, everyone working together with one common goal ... [and] no finger pointing. Your people are the world's greatest."(6)

This is part of a letter from a World War II veteran who had gone to a Veterans Affairs clinic four years ago and "was extremely disappointed by the lack of courtesy and coordination within the clinic." Recently, he went again. "What a pleasant surprise! I was impressed by the cleanliness and organization. The clerks were very polite and helpful. Congratulations on a job well done. As my daughter says, we deserve it."(7)

We agree, you do deserve it -- all Americans deserve much better service from government agencies. But it does not come easy. Just listen to what has been going on behind the scenes to make the customers notice a difference.

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