Ask Customers What They Want

The next step was for agencies to ask the customers what they wanted. Just asking turned out to be harder than one might imagine. In 1980, Congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act to protect people from having to fill out too many forms.(8) Diligently, the Office of Management and Budget then wrote detailed regulations with stringent requirements that agencies had to satisfy before mailing out any new forms -- for example, surveys to find out what their customers wanted. But when the President ordered a new customer service focus, OMB responded and reengineered their system, and now agencies can survey their customers more quickly and easily.

Once agencies began surveying customers, they got some surprises. For example, the Internal Revenue Service had assumed that what people wanted most was to get their tax booklet in the mail as soon as possible after New Year's Eve. But what the customers said they wanted most was little or no contact with the IRS. The Department of Veterans Affairs assumed that vets welcomed long delays in the waiting room so they could swap war stories; their customers told them, "Wrong." (The VA Regional Benefits Office in New York now serves customers so fast that they do not need a waiting room anymore. In fact, they are turning it into a museum of VA memorabilia.) The Federal Emergency Management Agency assumed that disaster victims wanted help to arrive much faster. They were partly right, but the victims FEMA surveyed also said that they wanted someone to take a little time, listen to their worries, and reassure them.

Most people had never even heard of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation or what it does. So PBGC went back to the basics and ran focus groups with customers. When PBGC took over the pension plan from the defunct Cooperweld Steel Company, Rosemary Thomas of PBGC held a town-hall-style meeting. She started by telling 200 worried steelworkers that the agency insured their underfunded pension plan, and that their checks were safe, and how soon the checks would start. That calmed things down right away.

If we've learned anything from reinventing government, it is that the way to get things right is to start by asking customers. By the way, customers like being asked. It was a new experience coming from the government.

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