Obama’s Call For Improved Government Customer Service – A Fool’s Quest

Improving Customer Service For Government

Q: Recently President Obama announced an initiative to improve the customer service offered to the taxpayers and citizens of the USA and asked that government departments submit their plans to achieve that end. What’s your take on it?

Robert: On one level, I think it’s a good idea to convey to all government employees that their main function is to serve and interact with citizens. Who could argue with that? As a symbolic act, it’s…well, something. On a practical level, the question is whether this is going to result in better government service, OR stimulate a lot of activity, rather than effectiveness.

Q: Which do you think it’s going to be?

Robert: After 25 years serving government clients, and working in government, I’ve seen dozens of initiatives announced, with almost all resulting in at best, minimum changes, accompanied with all kinds of waving around of policies and plans. So, my built in cyincism says, no, this is not going to have much effect. But it’s not just my seeing this all before, but the timing of this that has me a bit pessimistic.

Q: Timing in what respect?

Robert: The American economy is in a shambles, the government system is half paralysed by partisan politics that make solutions unlikely, and annoyance with government is high. Regardless of what the government does, and when it actually does it, we know it’s not going to involve more money put into government. We know there will be huge cuts in services and budgets. So, Obama mandating better customer service at this time is like me saying I’m going to add an extra floor to my house, while I’ve been unemployed, and essentially broke, for two years. It’s a little baffling. How, exactly is this transformation likely to occur?

Q: Isn’t part of the idea that government will make better use of technology — social media, websites and better organization to improve service?

Robert: I think that’s the intent, but there’s this weird idea that all of that stuff is ‘free”, and it’s not. It’s not free to the private sector, and it’s not free to government, even if they use existing “free” platforms like Facebook. It all still comes down to people interacting with people — government staff interacting with citizens, and that does NOT scale, and it’s not cheap, no matter what platform one uses. Secondly, government has made HUGE strides in how it makes available information on the Internet. It’s already benefitted from the technology, it’s already made the quantum leap and reaped any benefits. Sure, there’s room to improve, but at some point improving a website just a little is not going to make for better service. Most jurisdictions already have excellent websites. So, where is the improvement going to come from?

Q: Do you feel that this whole initiative for better customer service also involves losing the thread about what government actually does, and tries to portray government like “a business with customers”?

Robert: That’s another reason for my gloominess on this. I understand that those on the political right feel that government should be run like a business, while also staying as small and unobtrusive as possible, but those are ideological issues. Except that government is NOT a business. It has responsibilities, like it or not, that involve regulation, ensuring the safety of citizens, and on and on. You can’t just say: “Oh, we’ll do customer service like Zappos”, because you don’t sell shoes, and the payoffs and costs of customer service are different for government.

Let’s do another interview on the cost of government customer service.

Q: OK. let’s do that. Next time.

Author: Robert Bacal

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