Improving Customer Service

Recommendations and Actions

ICS05: Streamline Ways to Collect Customer Satisfaction and Other Information from the Public


Drawing on authority granted in the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, as amended in 1986, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) currently reviews and approves Information Collection Requests (ICRs) from federal agencies to the public. Several recommendations from the National Performance Review (NPR) depend on a greater input of public opinion. For example, the first step in the recommended program to improve customer service (ICS01) is for agencies that deal with the public to identify their customers and survey them on services desired and levels of satisfaction. With this NPR recommended program, frequent surveys of customer opinions would be used to set directions and measure performance.

NPR recommendation REG04, part of the accompanying report on Improving Regulatory Systems, encourages greater use of focus groups and small surveys of the public to test new rulemaking ideas early in the process. The goal is to avoid complicated mid-course program corrections.

The Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting NPR accompanying report, in its recommendation BGT02, proposes surveys of the public as a basic performance measurement method. The findings and purposes section of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 also makes specific reference to customer satisfaction as a necessary performance criterion.

Each of these NPR recommendations seeks to get more public input for a similar reason. Directly asking the public what it wants and how its government is doing will be much more accurate than current practices of making best estimates or using second- or third-hand information about the needs of the public. None of the recommendations for more public input would make their input mandatory. In all cases the public's response would be voluntary.

The primary objectives of the Paperwork Reduction Act are to minimize the federal paperwork burden on those outside the federal government, to minimize the government's cost in collecting information, and to maximize the usefulness of the information collected. Departments and agencies have the primary responsibility for meeting these goals, but may not collect information without OMB approval.[Endnote 1 The act covers all ICRs to ten or more people. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) administers the act within OMB.

Under the act, OMB may delegate ICR review and approval authority to agencies that commit sufficient resources to carry out the responsibilities of the act effectively and that assign the task to a senior official who is independent of program responsibility.2 Review and approval authority has been delegated to the Federal Reserve Board, but that is the only instance to date of delegation.


Requirements in the Government Performance and Results Act, added to NPR recommendations on customer service, regulatory improvement, and performance measurement, would produce a major increase in workload for OIRA. The staff currently working on all ICRs numbers about 35.

Program staff in agencies often describe the process of getting out a survey as already being a significant barrier.[Endnote 3] The goals of the Paperwork Reduction Act to reduce burden on the public and improve quality are unquestionably excellent ones. But NPR's concern is that the process of getting clearance is itself enough of a burden to discourage attempts to get customer opinions.

The most common complaint among agency staff is that the survey approval process takes too long. OIRA's most recent annual report estimates that it takes 65 days to process the average request it receives, including time for public comment.[Endnote 4] Some agency ICR offices agree with that estimate and say they can get expedited processing when needed, but most agencies estimate that the process takes much longer. When agency program staff comment that the process is lengthy, they are typically looking at the time spent preparing the package for review, plus the time spent in agency review, added to the time spent by OIRA.

Whatever the precise cause, clearly OIRA is under pressure to do the job faster. As NPR's recommendations for more frequent customer surveys become reality, the requirement to do a lot more reviews will be added. If ICRs continue to be processed the way they are today and OIRA staff levels are not increased, performance can only decline. But many agencies now have staff experienced in designing packages that can pass OIRA standards-- in effect they now represent another review layer-- and this staff represents a resource that could speed the clearance process if they were given approval responsibility for at least some portion of the ICRs.

Besides the general interest in speeding up the overall clearance process, there are two proposals that home in on specific types of ICRs and seek to reduce the work involved. The first concerns group discussions. Agency interest is growing in the use of focus groups or group discussions of interested individuals brought together to discuss a particular topic. The reason is that focus groups or group discussions represent a potentially simple way of getting customer input. However, the need for ICR clearance on group discussions could be clarified by OIRA.

Focus groups are reviewed in the same ICR process as conventional surveys, although agencies often view them only as a way to get quick, preliminary inputs early in a program's development. OIRA has informally offered the opinion that other forms of group discussion, those without a required script of focus questions, are outside the coverage of the PRA, and thus do not require OIRA review. OIRA should clarify the distinctions between various forms of group discussions and streamline the review process for formal focus groups to reduce the disincentive against using the more structured method.

The second proposal to save time and work concerns renewals of previously approved ICRs, where the questions to be asked and the targets for those questions are unchanged. The agencies' argument is that in these cases it would be appropriate to have special procedures for a quick review, or even an outright delegation of approval authority.

The administrator of OIRA has already begun to improve OIRA management of the overall ICR approval process, including simplifying the tasks agencies face in making applications to OIRA. For example, she has directed her staff to streamline and simplify the ways that agencies must submit materials in support of their requests. The NPR recommendations that follow urge specific actions as part of the Administrator's overall initiative.


1. For voluntary customer surveys, the Office of Management and Budget will delegate its survey approval authority under the Paperwork Reduction Act to departments that are able to comply with the Act.(2)

A customer is defined to be a member of the public to whom the federal government supplies services or financial assistance directly and individually. A voluntary request would be clearly labeled as such when sent to the public and would exclude any requests where the information is required in order to maintain or obtain eligibility for a program or benefit. It is important that the requests be perceived as voluntary by recipients in order that the burden of supplying the information be a matter of personal choice.

At this point, Action 1 is not intended to include surveys by regulators of regulated entities. The task of managing requests for information from these agencies to regulated entities so that the requests would be perceived as truly voluntary is a difficult one. Nonetheless, NPR believes that the regulatory agencies would benefit significantly from more public input. The following recommendation on focus groups addresses this need in part. However, NPR believes that more research is warranted to define conditions under which voluntary opinion surveys can be done by regulators.

Departments taking responsibility for ICR approval in connection with Action 1 would be accepting the obligation to comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act in its entirety for surveys they approve; a delegation by the Director of OMB would not imply relief from any requirements of the Act itself.

OIRA would retain the right to spot check ICRs. Under the Act, if OMB found Departments unable to meet their responsibilities, the Director of OMB could revoke a delegation.

2. The administrator of OIRA should issue guidance on focus groups, specifically establishing under what circumstances group discussion activities would be excluded from OIRA review. (2)

This action would allow all agencies to get public opinions in a quicker, less formal way than surveys. However, the guidance should not be interpreted as empowering agencies to convene political focus groups.

3. The administrator of OIRA should greatly simplify and speed renewal of previously approved ICRs when the questions asked and the recipients of the ICR are unchanged. (2)

This action simply seeks to take advantage of prior work in ICR development and review to reduce the workload on both OIRA and agency staff. The mechanics of the clearance process for renewals would parallel the delegation proposed under Action 1.

The thrust of all three actions is that OIRA should adopt a "steer not row'' posture whenever possible with regard to ICRs. OIRA could offer training programs in the design of collection vehicles. It could advise agency heads on the design of review systems, and establish coordinating mechanisms to help agencies identify collection efforts similar to their own in other agencies. In parallel to agency efforts, OIRA could review completed information collection vehicles and results on a sample basis so as to advise agency heads on opportunities to improve quality and minimize burden. These sampling activities could provide the basis for an ongoing set of OIRA publications about best practices.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Improving Regulatory Systems, REG04: Enhance Public Awareness and Participation.

Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.

Small Business Administration, SBA01: Allow Judicial Review of the Regulatory Flexibility Act.

Executive Office of the President, EOP01: Delegate Routine Paperwork Review to Agencies and Redeploy OMB Resources More Effectively.


1. See U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Information Collection Review Handbook (Washington, D.C., January 1989).

2. See paragraph 3507e of the Paperwork Reduction Act.

3. See various agency/Vice President town hall transcripts; in addition, see notes on NPR discussions with agency staff who submit information collection requests.

4. See U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Managing Federal Information Resources, Tenth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., August 1992).

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