Uh-oh, satisfaction with federal government services has dropped

Citizen satisfaction with government services fell again last year. In fact, the satisfaction index fell to the lowest point since measurement started back in 1...

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Citizen satisfaction with government services fell again last year. In fact, the satisfaction index fell to the lowest point since measurement started back in 1999. Here on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with the details, the director of research for the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Forrest Morgeson.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: So what happened? Give us the numbers here, and also how the government average compares with the non-government average?

Forrest Morgeson
Well, we’ve seen several years in a row now where we’ve had declining citizens satisfaction with federal government services. It fell again in 2021, down 2.6% to a score of 63.4. And that’s on a zero to 100 scale that we use. And that number, as you mentioned, is in fact, the lowest that we’ve recorded since we started measuring in 1999.

Tom Temin: But it’s been dropping for several years now. So it’s hard to attribute that to a given administration, I guess at this point. If it’s a first full year of a different administration.

Forrest Morgeson: That’s correct. It seems to be “non-political” in the sense that it really is reflecting some kind of underlying dissatisfaction among consumers with the services they receive, regardless of who’s in charge of those services, at least nominally.

Tom Temin: So 63.4 is the federal government average, and what is the national average for commercial entities?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, the national average sits at about 75 right now for the private sector services. So this is substantially and in statistical terms, we’d say very statistically significantly lower than the private sector average. Government’s tended, especially the federal government has tended to be significantly below the private sector, but the gap is just widening here over the last four or five years.

Tom Temin: And we should point out that one department, the Interior Department, exceeded the national level with a 77% out of 100 rating. And they’re pretty consistently up there too, aren’t they, Interior?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, they tend to be our leader among the federal departments that we measure that we capture in our data. They’ve tended pretty much every year that we have sufficient sample to include Interior, they tend to lead. And we attribute that mostly to the kind of service or the particular agency and services it provides being used by citizens within Interior. And that’s really the National Park Service. So most of the respondents that we get vis-à-vis Interior are folks who’ve gone to a national park and enjoyed it. And given that it’s a vacation thing, it’s relatively low cost some amazing national parks in the United States, that makes some sense. And when you compare that with who’s down at the bottom, Department of Treasury, which is mostly people that have experienced the IRS, the huge gap between those two isn’t really that surprising. I mean, nobody likes to pay their taxes. And so there’s a certain obviousness to that kind of finding.

Tom Temin: But yet, dissatisfaction with having to pay taxes is not the same as dissatisfaction with the service you get from the IRS. And the IRS has experienced significant shortfalls for a variety of reasons, say in its ability to answer the phone on time, and its website. Maybe it’s the complexity of the tax code. So it is possible to separate what you don’t like doing, for example, Health and Human Services is up there at 71%. Below the national average, but way above the government average, and people might go there when they’re sick. And yet they did all right.

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I mean, there’s no easy answer to all of this in the sense that you just blame it on services or functions that citizens don’t like. Even the IRS has been able to differentiate their online tax filing process with the paper and pencil form filing process and provide pretty substantially higher satisfaction via some channels versus other channels. So it can be done. It’s just a matter of trying to find the right balance and getting the citizens to use those new and more satisfying tools as much as possible.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Forrest Morgeson, he’s director of research at the American Customer Satisfaction Index. And just if you would briefly review the methodology by which you get these scores.

Forrest Morgeson: Well, what we do sort of in a nutshell, is we go out and collect interviews throughout each calendar year. So we’re constantly collecting data starting in the first week of January running through December of each year. And we’re asking citizens, if they’ve experienced any federal government service, we separate out the Postal Service. So this doesn’t include Postal Service, because otherwise we get everyone saying, yes, I’ve used the Postal Service, but everything else is fair game. If they say yes, they’ve had an experience with a federal agency or program, we then interview them, ask them a range of questions about that experience, and ultimately, how satisfying it was, the trust they have in the government, the confidence they have in the government and a variety of other questions. And then we aggregate all those interviews. It ends up being around 2,500 interviews that we do, and run it through a statistical model that allows us to get the most accurate estimates of how satisfied they are, how they like the different quality attributes of the services, and so forth. And that’s the methodology that we use to produce these numbers and then track them year in and year out.

Tom Temin: And also looking at Republican versus Democratic answers, they’re pretty close to identical.

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon this year because what we have seen, and we’ve done some research on this topic, what we’ve seen is that there tends to be pretty consistent changes across political administrations where the party in power is a little bit happier with the government than the party out of power. And when power changes hands, the party that comes coming into power gets more satisfied, the party that’s losing power gets less satisfied, and so forth. But not this year. I mean, this year, we saw decreases not only across federal government, federal government-wide, but also among both of the major political parties and adherence to those political parties, both groups dropped this year, and Democrats actually dropped more than Republicans did. So there’s a real dissatisfaction here that goes far beyond political preference and the party in power. And I think a lot of that has to do, or at least certainly a good proportion of that has to do with the stress that’s been placed on the federal government and the services it offers because of the pandemic.

Tom Temin: So you might say that President Biden’s recent executive order on customer experience is well timed.

Forrest Morgeson: it is well timed. And, you know, we’ve done a little bit of research on that, looked into it. It’s similar to other executive orders that have come out over the last really 25 or 30 years that have been focused on trying to improve the customer service experience of the federal government and of its various programs. You know, it’ll be interesting to see if this one has a bit more effect than some of the others have had. None have seemed to really turn the government into a private sector-like entity in terms of its satisfaction, but it’s certainly the kind of movement that you’d like to see from the government,

Tom Temin: And who on the commercial side does really well, as a point of reference?

Forrest Morgeson: There’s a variety of companies that probably wouldn’t shock you to hear, but companies that we tend to find a pretty strong relationship between how well companies perform in satisfaction and how well they perform financially. Amazon has been a perennial leader year in and year out in terms of customer satisfaction. Among fast food companies, a company like Chick-fil-A has been regularly at the top. We’ve got airlines, Delta Air Lines has been the leader for the last couple of years, which is a sort of a turnaround story. They were one of the sort of laggard, lower in the industry, you know, big, old fashioned legacy provider, but they’ve really become a service leader in their industry. Apple does really well, both their retail stores and for their hardware, their iPhones do really well. So companies like that, that are performing really well financially, you can generally trace that back to them performing really well with their customers.

Tom Temin: And there’s also just the quality of what it is they deploy. And the speed of it, too. There’s some technical characteristics that make people satisfied with service fair to say?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, absolutely. We exist in a really rapidly changing service environment. A lot of it’s for the better. A lot of it, you know, depending on the group of customers that you’re working with is strange and new. But we’re getting the ability to get service much faster, more seamlessly. We still have some companies that are stuck in that, well, if you have a problem, call us and we’ll bounce you around 35 menus without answering your question. But most companies through the use of multiple channels and what we call omni-channel service delivery have found a way to better serve customers by using these multiple methods, automated chat bots, email, chat, windows, virtual assistants and those kinds of things that are making service a little bit better, one would hope.

Tom Temin: And do you think that perhaps the ongoing pandemic and the multiplicity of messages that have been coming from the government, now two administrations each share about a year and a half or so of pandemic response, and it’s confusing to the public, could that be a factor in general, do you think?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, I mean, we don’t measure that directly. But I think it’s hard to not see everything that’s been going on for the last two years, how it has not only stressed the federal government, but as you noted that the varying messages that we get from the federal government, and not just across administrations, but within individual administrations, it’s confusing to Americans. It doesn’t reinforce our trust in the government, regardless of the political party that you come from. It’s hard to look at all of this as something that has helped the government in the eyes of citizens. And it’s just been a really traumatic time in general. So I think underlying the decline that we’ve seen, certainly the last two years in satisfaction with the federal government, you got to look at that, at least as a significant influencing factor there.

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