Commentary: Executive Order 1357 Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service Part 2 – Service Plans/Activities

In the first installment of this series on Obama’s customer service initiative we provided commentary on the policy itself. In this installment, we’ll look at, comment and critique the section entitled :Agency Customer Service Plans and Activities

ec. 2.  Agency Customer Service Plans and Activities.  Within 180 days of the date of this order, each agency shall develop, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a Customer Service Plan (plan) to address how the agency will provide services in a manner that seeks to streamline service delivery and improve the experience of its customers.  As used in this order, the term “customer” refers to any individual or to any entity, including a business, tribal, State or local government, or other agency, to which the agency directly provides significant services.  The plan shall set forth the agency’s approach, intended benefits, and an implementation timeline for the following actions:

(a)  establishing one major initiative (signature initiative) that will use technology to improve the customer experience;

Commentary: While it sounds good, there’s a fly in the ointment. While technology “may” result in better customer service, it’s probably more wishful thinking than reality. Certainly, social media, automated phone systems and the recent spate of technology based customer service attempts have NOT lead to more positive perceptions of customer service in the private sector. The problem here is that real dialogue between a customer service front line staffer and customers IS the core of customer service improvement. That cannot be off loaded to technology. It doesn’t work. The problem is that even with technology, perceptions of service often come down to personal contact, and that’s expensive.

(b)  establishing mechanisms to solicit customer feedback on Government services and using such feedback regularly to make service improvements;

Comment: Feedback is, or at least can be a good thing, but one problem is that many users of government services aren’t interested in providing that feedback, and it’s almost certain that feedback that is not SYSTEMATIC will result in biased results. Governments rarely get positive marks made about their service, but they DO get very loud comments from disgruntled citizens. So, while feedback is good, what you do with the feedback when you don’t know whether it’s biased or even close to accurate is the problem.

(c)  setting clear customer service standards and expectations, including, where appropriate, performance goals for customer service required by the GPRA (Government Performance and Results) Modernization Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-352);

Comment: Good steps. Standards are key as is managing the expectations of those that use government services.

(d)  improving the customer experience by adopting proven customer service best practices and coordinating across service channels (such as online, phone, in-person, and mail services);

Comment: Adopting best practices, once again, sounds good, but often best practices only work within a specific context (a company, an industry, etc). When one tries to apply “best practices” to another environment, often the results are disappointing. As for service channels, one has to keep in mind that additional channels don’t replace existing ones, so the actual costs increase as one adds channels.

(e)  streamlining agency processes to reduce costs and accelerate delivery, while reducing the need for customer calls and inquiries; and

Comment: The government has actually made huge strides in reducing the need for calls and inquiries, but I suspect it’s achieved all it’s going to achieve. The biggest gains have come from the development of websites, and an infrastructure that allows citizens to conduct business through those websites. And of course, streamlining is always good.

(f)  identifying ways to use innovative technologies to accomplish the customer service activities above, thereby lowering costs, decreasing service delivery times, and improving the customer experience.

Comment: From what I’ve seen government is making the same mistakes the private sector has made over the last few years with respect to “innovative technologies”, which often means social media. As I said above, technology isn’t the stuff that makes customer service better. Technology can play a role in making information more available to reduce customer demand on more expensive interactions, but it cannot replace interactive dialogue with a live, expert government employee who understands how best to help the citizen accomplish what he or she needs to do.

In Part 3, the final installment, we’ll make some overall comments, and present some “watch-outs” related to the new executive order.

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