Improving Customer Service

Executive Summary

The Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency most citizens prefer to avoid, might seem the least likely to develop a customer focus. But a story about the IRS shows the kind of service that government employees can deliver:

A down-on-his-luck taxpayer hitchhiked from out of state to the IRS Ogden, Utah Service Center to pick up his refund check. As it turns out, Ogden does not issue checks. But IRS employees there confirmed that he was due a refund. They ordered a check sent to Ogden from a disbursing center. Because the process would take 10 days, and the hitchhiker had no money, IRS employees found him shelter and collected enough food money to see him through until the check arrived.

This Ogden center won the 1992 Presidential Award for Quality. Unhappily, their performance is not typical of the federal government.

Service is Below Expectation. The overall quality of service provided by the government is below what the public expects and has a right to expect. Long lines, busy signals, bad information, and financial errors are far too common. Similar problems with similar causes also afflicted corporate America--too many layers, internal monopolies, and lack of customer focus. But business, which lives or dies based on customer satisfaction, has been busy reinventing itself over the past 15 years. Today's business successes are customer driven.

So far the government has not kept pace. Unlike businesses, government agencies rarely get their funding directly from the public. Lacking this direct link to their real customers, agencies often focus instead on powerful stakeholders, such as Congress or higher-level management. As these stakeholders raise issues, agencies increase their specialization, add organizations, and pile on more directives. In the process, the focus moves further and further from their real customers, the public.

The Beginning of a Customer Service Emphasis. The good news is that the help given to the hitchhiking taxpayer in Ogden is not an isolated incident. In some agencies there are beginnings of a new public sector emphasis on customer service.

Programs in the Forest Service, the Defense Department, and other federal organizations have already boosted both customer satisfaction and productivity. The Commerce Department's International Trade Administration set up a 24-hour phone system that lets callers select topics from a menu and fax themselves information on the changing trade situation in Eastern Europe. The Department of Veterans Affairs plans mandatory training in courtesy for employees serving the needs of veterans. And information technology leaders from 12 federal agencies have formed a "Service to the Citizen" alliance, in which members collaborate on projects and fund work to sort out how technology can improve service to the government's customers.

In June 1993, this alliance, plus 150 federal, state, and local officials, and leaders from the private sector and academia, met at a Richmond, Virginia, conference to consider the government's ability to deliver information and services to the public. The conference report, We the People, sees the government's challenge as learning to focus on the customer instead of internal processes. "[T]he ultimate goal," it said, "would be to reestablish government for the people as promised by the constitution." [Endnote 1]

A Vision for the Future. This indeed is the vision of the National Performance Review--a government turnaround, like that of America's best corporations, to reestablish government for the people. These real customers will drive government services. Agencies will constantly ask customers what they want and whether they are satisfied with what they are getting. Agencies will post performance standards, measure performance in terms of customer satisfaction, and allocate resources to maximize such satisfaction. Front-line workers will be the primary sources of ideas on how to deliver better services for less. And the federal government will set its goal as providing customer service to equal the best in business.

Three agencies with the bulk of the government's contacts with the public--the IRS, Social Security Administration, and Postal Service--have already begun to work with customer service standards. Each of these agencies has a significant customer service program. Their standards address specific dimensions of customer service, such as waiting times and courtesy. Each is publishing its standards and posting them on the walls of offices where it has contact with the public.

One route for agencies to understand what their customers want is through the use of surveys. This means more surveys will need to be reviewed and approved under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is responsible for these reviews, is looking to streamline its procedures. OMB should delegate its approval authority to departments that are able to comply with the requirements of the Act. OMB should provide training, advice, and interagency coordination. OMB should also clarify guidance on the use of public focus groups as a source of input and streamline the process to renew survey approvals.

Taken collectively, the actions recommended in this report put government's focus squarely on the customer where it belongs. With this focus, all the lessons from both the public and private sector say that rework, make work, and unnecessary tasks fall away, and productivity soars.


1. Services to the Citizen Intergovernmental Task Force, We the People ( July 1993). (Conference report.)

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