Report: Federal customer service doesn’t have to stink

What can airlines and cable TV providers do better than the federal government?

Help customers, according to the most recent survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The government’s poor ranking provides the backdrop for a new report by the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture. The firms aim to rally agencies around new models of customer service.

While some of the recent drop in customer service rankings have been blamed on the botched rollout of the government’s health insurance exchange, the rest of the government is not immune, the authors cautioned in the report.

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Scores

*<i>2001 Federal Government score revised Dec. 2002.</i> Source: <i>American Customer Satisfaction Index, Jan. 2014, from </i><a href="http://www.federalnewsradio.com/pdfs/090814_PPS_SERVINGCITIZENS.pdf" target="_blank">Serving Citizens</a><i> by the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture</i>
For the most part, they contend, the federal government does not build its digital services around the intended customer.

“Often federal services are designed and delivered based largely around the structure of government and its bureaucratic silos rather than the needs of customers who often cross agency boundaries,” the report stated.

As a result, low-income families may have to sift through 47 programs across nine agencies to find the one right for them, the authors noted.

Even if they do not know which agency or office runs a program, citizens should still receive the help they need, the report said. That requires coordination and uniformity among service providers.

As a model, the report highlights BusinessUSA, a Commerce Department Web portal designed to help businesses navigate federal services. It adopted the “no wrong door” approach by setting up an online database of frequently asked questions. Employees working at call centers and field offices consult it so that they give customers the same responses that the website offers.

Opinions plummet as expectations rise

Internet giants like Amazon and Google have conditioned people to expect results quickly and around the clock. Against that competition, the government largely disappoints with clunky, confusing or slow online offerings.

To improve, the authors said, agencies must overcome additional barriers. They may include old and unsuitable computer networks, security and privacy concerns, agency culture clashes, and Congress’ focus on individual programs rather than cross-agency projects.

The struggle is well known. The White House has made improving customer service one of its top cross-agency goals for fiscal 2015. It recently opened a new office to help agencies strengthen their digital offerings.

Yet, “even the most advanced and compelling initiatives identified are works in progress,” according to the report.

Successful projects often happen because of White House directives, the report said. It urges the Office of Management and Budget to encourage agencies to collaborate. It says OMB also must erase regulatory barriers that prevent agencies from collecting and using customer feedback. OMB recently revealed plans for an award program that recognizes federal employees who deliver outstanding customer service.

But hurdles will remain unless Congress prioritizes customer service. The report recommends lawmakers adapt a more project-oriented approach to funding. That doesn’t mean they should put more money into cross-agency projects, the report said, but rather coordinate funding across agencies involved in a particular project. Without mentioning names, the report said some agencies have gotten around this hurdle by using, with their lawyers’ approval, working capital funds to launch pilot programs focused on improving customer service. Other agencies, such as the IRS, say they need more funds to help all the citizens who need it.

The report also backs legislation mandating standards for customer service and making it easier for agencies to collect feedback.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned. Tomorrow, we’ll tell you how some agencies are improving services to customers.

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