By the People, for the People: Why Governments Need to Do a Far Better Job of Serving their Citizens

If a recent American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report is any indication, citizens are losing faith in their governments’ ability to serve them. The ACSI’s report reveals that customer satisfaction with all branches of government has declined continuously and steeply since 2012, though it notes that the drop may be leveling off in 2015. This puts the government collectively in the same bucket as some of the U.S.’ most unloved private companies.



A key part of the issue stems from a lack of proper staffing due to budget cuts.  The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for example, saw its staffing dwindle significantly starting in 2010. The result has been a staggering increase in unanswered calls from taxpayers seeking help, to the point that the IRS has been proactively warning taxpayers to expect another year of poor customer service. And although the IRS made a number of improvements to their web site in an effort to increase self-help options, the sheer complexity of the tax code and the fact that many people cannot afford to hire a tax consultant means many questions and issues need to be resolved with the assistance of an IRS tax advisor. What’s more, the IRS was saddled with enforcing compliance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has increased the strain on the agency and its ability (or inability) to respond to taxpayers.

The IRS is not the only federal agency feeling the strain. The Department of Veterans Affairs, already under siege after its poor record of helping its growing number of constituents, is unable to provide even basic assistance to our veterans. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has also come under fire for its inability to better handle customers’ needs.

State and local governments are far from immune to this issue. A recent ranking of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) across many states pointed out just how badly some are handling high demand for their service, both in person as well as online and over the phone. The California Employment Development Department (EDD) gets continuously slammed by citizens on Yelp for not only poor customer service but rude customer service.

If government is indeed government of the people, by the people, for the people, then governments exist to serve their citizens. The dismal track record of many departments and agencies at all levels of government suggests otherwise.  So what is happening?

The issues are complex and not easy to resolve.

  1. Government is a complex human system designed to address a complex human system. Citizens are diverse in their needs, both in terms of what they are looking for as well as what degree of help they need. Responding to citizens’ diverse needs requires an adaptive system that can constantly learn and change, which is not something a government can easily do.
  2. A growing population increases the per capita load on government agencies, resulting in increased costs required to sustain public services provided. Soaring interest costs associated with a ballooning debt are poised to surpass actual spending at all government levels, threatening additional spending cuts and restraining budgets across multiple government entities. The result is less services available spread over an increasing population of citizens.
  3. The bureaucratic process which systematically imposes layers of rules and regulations as well as processes to its daily activities, including dealing directly with citizens. The result is a highly impersonal, rigid and often time-consuming approach to execution of a government entity’s mandate. Employees are given little flexibility to address specific situations and oftentimes are ill-equipped to handle any situations falling outside of what has been defined as the norm.
  4. Highly unionized and demotivated employees. Because many government employees are unionized, their employment and oftentimes the positions they hold are dictated by their seniority in the organization, instead of by merit. The result is often a lack of motivation from many employees to excel at their jobs, because they have little incentive to do so. It would be a false generalization to state that all government employees conform to this description. Many government employees enjoy their work and are dedicated to doing the best they can at their jobs. But rigid union demands have prevented organizations such as the United States Postal Service (USPS) from taking concrete steps to improve their overall service performance and provide employees with a chance to advance and to obtain higher compensation based on merit.

And there are many more.

At the federal level, the service issues haven’t gone unnoticed. In an effort to improve its failing record, the federal government last year began an initiative to hire Chief Customer Officers (CCO). The Government Services Agency (GSA) took concrete steps in this direction by appointing its first CCO in April. The move signifies both an acknowledgment by government entities that deficiencies in serving their citizens exist, as well as a willingness by many government entities to dedicate resources to addressing these deficiencies. How successful the CCOs will be will depend mainly on how much control they can exert over the customer service process as well as funds and resources made available to them

Whether a government entity adopts a CCO or not, it’s primary mandate remains to serve its citizens. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness in doing so is key to ensuring it continues to meet this obligation. And while there are issues that entities themselves cannot resolve on their own, such as funding which remains the decision of federal, state and local governments, there are concrete actions they can take to improve on the delivery of their mandate.

  1. Making the most common inquiries and transactions available online. The costs associated with online enablement technologies continue to drop, as does the complexity of their implementation. Even at current costs, it pays for itself in a relatively short period of time, especially when considering the sheer number of transactions a government entity has to deal with. There is no reason why government departments and agencies cannot leverage their online presence to provide everything from information to filling out forms and even online payments. Automated processing of the most common transactions would alleviate the load currently undertaken by personnel while at the same time increasing ease and convenience for citizens. And it doesn’t have to be much. The Santa Clara County Tax Collector’s office allows taxpayers to pay their property taxes online but until 2015 charged a $15 to $27 fee for eCheck payments, encouraging people to mail their payments in or pay directly in person. Simply waiving the fee had an immediate positive impact for both the tax office and the taxpayer by encouraging more people to pay their taxes online.
  2. Making a government entity’s web site more user friendly and intuitive. One of the key issues facing many agencies and departments today is the lack of intuitiveness of many of their web sites. These web sites can range from awkward to navigate to downright horrible. The result is not only a frustrating (and often futile) experience for the citizen who is trying to locate the information or resource they need, but an accompanying increase in phone calls and in-person visits because they ultimately can’t. Improving web sites to increase the intuitiveness of navigation does not always require a complete overhaul of the site (although the SAMS site would definitely qualify for one). For many, the existing web assets can remain accompanied by a re-design of the location of key information and relevant links along with an accompanying menu re-organization. Creating a trending section that highlights the most popular searches that dynamically re-ranks those searches is also helpful for quick access to topics most sought after at that point in time. Even just placing a giant search window on the home page along with a more intuitive meaning structure helps, as the State of Arkansas demonstrates. The federal government has dedicated a site to providing clear guidelines and information on creating a better user web experience.
  3. Seriously, no app yet? With mobile access to information slowly overtaking traditional web access via a PC, governments have to get smarter about making their information and any transactions available on mobile devices. Mobile applications are the most convenient way to enable the most common of these, as citizens have become more comfortable using native mobile applications. But even a mobile-optimized web presence would be an improvement. Designing the web sites to be more responsive to mobile access is key, of course. As developing applications may take longer and at a potentially significant cost, a responsive web design could provide a quicker and cheaper short term solution. In many cases, applications can be developed to provide access to the most common transactions and information, while allowing in-app browsing of the entity’s web site for less common inquiries. Despite all the criticism they have come under recently for some of their other mobile app ventures, the My TSA mobile application is refreshingly useful, providing the most commonly sought after information (wait times at various airport TSA checkpoints, what is or isn’t allowed as carry-on luggage). Granted, there is some question as to the accuracy of said reported wait times, as expressed in the app’s feedback section, but there’s always room for improvement.
  4. Training personnel to direct citizens online for phone or in-person inquiries that can addressed via the web or a mobile application. Invariably, despite a solid and intuitive web site and maybe a mobile application being available, citizens may still have difficulty finding what they are looking for. This can easily be addressed during a phone call or in-person visit. Personnel dealing with a live citizen’s inquiry can be trained to quickly determine if an online resource is available to address the inquiry. If it exists, explaining where the resource exists for future reference along with some information on how to access and search online resources first for other inquiries will contribute to reducing repeated calls or in-person visits. The focus on educating citizens on self-help therefore becomes a critical part of on the phone or in-person interaction as, not only does it help reduce future such calls and visits, it also empowers the citizen to seek more conveniently the information they need in the future, resorting to a live discussion or visit only when they really cannot find what they are looking for. Again, this is where an intuitive web presence and easy to use mobile application can help. Granted, there will always be citizens who prefer live communications (indeed this is their right), but given the option for self-help online, an increasing number of citizens will opt for the latter.
  5. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of phone and in-person interactions. There are still many transactions which require a phone call or even an in-person visit. Obtaining a driver’s license for the first time will typically require an in-person visit, for example, to physically validate the person’s identity, although much of the preparatory work can be done online. There are also cases which are more complex and that may require a phone call or in-person visit (advice for special situations when filing a federal or state income tax return, for example). And then, as stated previously, there are citizens that prefer handling inquiries and transactions with a live person. Equipping personnel to better handle the steady volume of live transactions as well as peak intervals (think the IRS close to mid-April every year) not only improves their overall ability to service citizens in this manner, but improves the experience for the citizen. Not to mention making the experience more pleasant for the public servant. Offering a citizen the ability to call them back when their place in the phone queue has arrived, as the California DMV has implemented, is one way to alleviate inconveniently long wait times for citizens while alleviating call traffic for personnel during peak hours. In person visits can be made more convenient for citizens by allowing them to place themselves before they actually working their way over to the site, as the Texas DMV has implemented for their driver’s license mega centers. Again, this alleviates the inconvenience of having to wait for a long period of time in line, while steadying the flow of physical traffic in and out of the facility.
  6. Actually listening to feedback. This had to be mentioned, because for the most part, whether it is real, perceived, or both, citizens don’t feel like any government agency or department listens to their feedback, even when they are explicitly asked to provide some. This has to change if governments want to improve how they serve their citizens. Both solicited and unsolicited feedback is a key way government entity’s can determine how well they are doing in addressing a citizen’s needs, while offering them key inputs for continued improvement. As it stands, much of the unsolicited input coming from citizens today is negative and the direct result of a bad experience. Oftentimes, this feedback is posted publicly, and is not monitored by the offending government agency or department. When citizens feel like their input is being heard, they will volunteer more of it and it will be more constructive. This can only be helpful in improving service, which benefits both public servants, the department or agency they serve and the citizen they all serve in turn. Beyond feedback site such as the one implemented by the Federal government, simply capturing a citizen’s feedback while on the phone with them or in person can be valuable to the process of continuous improvement.

Implementing all of theses changes may sound easy enough, but that is hardly the case. A successful implementation of any of them requires a concerted effort from key stakeholders within the various municipal, state and federal agencies and departments. The effort is worth it if undertaken. Governments are elected by the people, and their bureaucracies exist to serve those same people: its citizens. They must and can do a better job of serving them. It benefits everyone.

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