Commentary: Executive Order 13571–Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service – Part 1 – Policy

In April, 2011, U.S. President signed an executive order (13571) mandating government departments to improve customer service offered to citizens. Most people feel some skepticism when they see “customer service” appearing in the context of government, but it certainly seems sensible for government to “up its customer service game”. Since the order has important implications for government employees and departments, not to mention taxpayers, it’s worth looking at a bit more carefully, since often, with customer service, the devil is in the details.

In this multi-part series, we’ll dissect and comment upon the executive customer service order.

For those interested in reading the original text, it’s available by clicking here (will open a new window)

The Policy Section

The order begins with a policy section, as follows:

Section 1.  PolicyThe public deserves competent, efficient, and responsive service from the Federal Government.  Executive departments and agencies (agencies) must continuously evaluate their performance in meeting this standard and work to improve it.  To this end, Executive Order 12862 (Setting Customer Service Standards), issued on September 11, 1993, requires agencies that provide significant services directly to the public to identify and survey their customers, establish service standards and track performance against those standards, and benchmark customer service performance against the best in business.  This effort to “put people first” was an important step.  It was reinforced by a Presidential Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies issued on March 22, 1995 (Improving Customer Service), and a further Presidential Memorandum issued on March 3, 1998 (Conducting “Conversations with America” to Further Improve Customer Service).

Comment: This sets the historical context for the 2011 executive order, by referring to a previous executive order issued in 1993, eight years previous to Obama’s declaration. While it’s virtually impossible to disagree with the first sentence (highlighted in red), it’s worth noting that even after eight years, government is still not perceived as responsive to customer service requests, or a leader in providing customer service. It’s hard to tell, since most people’s impressions of government are certainly biased by the fact that government not only supplies services to citizens, but regulates citizens for the common good. That puts government in an awkward position. After all, a government “customer”, told he must chop down his favorite cherry tree, is unlikely to feel “well served” by government. One question we need to ask is whether it is, indeed possible to affect how the populace evaluates customer service from government.

In the section marked in blue, reference is made to the idea that governments should be benchmarked against the best in business. That’s a major problem, and should be a major concern, since the government context, and the business context are so different, with purpose and goals of organizations so dissimilar that if this is taken literally, government will end up comparing itself to organizations by and large, completely irrelevant to government.  More importantly, while private sector companies can recoup the costs of providing customer service, and in fact, rely on service features to market, and thereby profit, government cannot do so. Government can not make customer service self-financing, and since customer service is not free, that means cost issues in an era of economic turmoil.

That’s not to say, government shouldn’t be concerned with response time, and listening to its customers. But it does mean the context is completely different, and the metrics should reflect that. Benchmarking to business may be a bad idea.

However, with advances in technology and service delivery systems in other sectors, the public’s expectations of the Government have continued to riseThe Government must keep pace with and even exceed those expectations.  Government must also address the need to improve its services, not only to individuals, but also to private and Governmental entities to which the agency directly provides significant services.  Government managers must learn from what is working in the private sector and apply these best practices to deliver services better, faster, and at lower cost.  Such best practices include increasingly popular lower-cost, self-service options accessed by the Internet or mobile phone and improved processes that deliver services faster and more responsively, reducing the overall need for customer inquiries and complaints.  The Federal Government has a responsibility to streamline and make more efficient its service delivery to better serve the public.

Comment: Notice the phrase “public’s expectations”, highlighted in red. There are two meanings for the phrase. One relates to what a customer expects to experience in the future, and the other has to do with what customers WANT. It’s important, when talking about customer service, that we be specific and precise.

Reading the phrase highlighted in green above, no doubt you, as would almost everyone, agree with the sentiment. We all want better customer service, and in fact the overwhelming majority of government employees want to provide that service and are often frustrated when the system slows them down. But here’s a question we have to ask. WHY must government keep pace with and exceed those expectations? 

If that seems an odd question, since customer service is not free, and taxpayer dollars are scarce, how is customer service tied to the reason government exists, and to each department’s goals and functions. What are the consequences of frustrating customer expectations?

In the private sector, the claims are that poor customer service will affect the bottom line of profitability, and while that may not strictly be true (many of the worst perceived companies in terms of customer service are very profitable), where is the “payoff” for government.

If customer service WAS free, we needn’t ask this question, but we have to place customer service in a wider context — that of restricted budgets, layoffs, and lack of funding for many very useful programs offered by government. The WHY is critical here, because if the why is unclear, government executives and managers, faced with difficult budget choices will do what they often due in situations of ambiguity and double-messages. They will do the absolute minimum to conform to the requirements, while managing to change as little as possible.

So, while we all can agree with the notion of better customer service, at what cost? For what ends?

In the second part of this series, we’ll comment upon the next section of the executive order — Agency Customer Service Plans and Activities



1 comment

  1. Martha Beaumont says:

    Didn’t Clinton and Gore try this way back? Anyone know what happened with that? (Ok. I’m a little skeptical about government promises, particularly about customer service..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>