IMPROVING CUSTOMER SERVICE
ACCOMPANYING REPORT OF THE NATIONAL PERFORMANCE REVIEW OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT Washington, DC September 1993
Recommendations and Actions
ICS01: Create Customer-Driven Programs in all
Departments and Agencies That Provide Services Directly to the Public............5
ICS02: Customer Service Performance Standards
Internal Revenue Service...................9
ICS03: Customer Service Performance Standards
Social Security Administration............11
ICS04: Customer Service Performance Standards
ICS05: Streamline Ways to Collect Customer
Satisfaction and Other Information from the Public................................19
Each action is followed by a number in parentheses that indicates the necessary avenue for effective implementation. Appendix A organizes all actions according to these categories.
(1) Agency heads can do themselves.
(2) President, Executive Office of the President, or
Office of Management and Budget can do.
(3) Requires legislative action.
(4) Good idea, but will require additional work, or
may be better suited for future action.
CSI Customer Satisfaction Index
GAO General Accounting Office
ICR Information Collection Requests
IRS Internal Revenue Service
NPR National Performance Review
OIRA Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
OMB Office of Management and Budget
SSA Social Security Administration
The Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency most citizens prefer to avoid, might seem the least likely to develop a customer focus. But a story about the IRS shows the kind of service that government employees can deliver:
A down-on-his-luck taxpayer hitchhiked from out of state to the IRS Ogden, Utah Service Center to pick up his refund check. As it turns out, Ogden does not issue checks. But IRS employees there confirmed that he was due a refund. They ordered a check sent to Ogden from a disbursing center. Because the process would take 10 days, and the hitchhiker had no money, IRS employees found him shelter and collected enough food money to see him through until the check arrived.
This Ogden center won the 1992 Presidential Award for Quality. Unhappily, their performance is not typical of the federal government.
Service is Below Expectation. The overall quality of service provided by the government is below what the public expects and has a right to expect. Long lines, busy signals, bad information, and financial errors are far too common. Similar problems with similar causes also afflicted corporate America--too many layers, internal monopolies, and lack of customer focus. But business, which lives or dies based on customer satisfaction, has been busy reinventing itself over the past 15 years. Today's business successes are customer driven.
So far the government has not kept pace. Unlike businesses, government agencies rarely get their funding directly from the public. Lacking this direct link to their real customers, agencies often focus instead on powerful stakeholders, such as Congress or higher-level management. As these stakeholders raise issues, agencies increase their specialization, add organizations, and pile on more directives. In the process, the focus moves further and further from their real customers, the public.
The Beginning of a Customer Service Emphasis. The good news is that the help given to the hitchhiking taxpayer in Ogden is not an isolated incident. In some agencies there are beginnings of a new public sector emphasis on customer service.
Programs in the Forest Service, the Defense Department, and other federal organizations have already boosted both customer satisfaction and productivity. The Commerce Department's International Trade Administration set up a 24-hour phone system that lets callers select topics from a menu and fax themselves information on the changing trade situation in Eastern Europe. The Department of Veterans Affairs plans mandatory training in courtesy for employees serving the needs of veterans. And information technology leaders from 12 federal agencies have formed a "Service to the Citizen" alliance, in which members collaborate on projects and fund work to sort out how technology can improve service to the government's customers.
In June 1993, this alliance, plus 150 federal, state, and local officials, and leaders from the private sector and academia, met at a Richmond, Virginia, conference to consider the government's ability to deliver information and services to the public. The conference report, We the People, sees the government's challenge as learning to focus on the customer instead of internal processes. "[T]he ultimate goal," it said, "would be to reestablish government for the people as promised by the constitution." [Endnote 1]
A Vision for the Future. This indeed is the vision of the National Performance Review--a government turnaround, like that of America's best corporations, to reestablish government for the people. These real customers will drive government services. Agencies will constantly ask customers what they want and whether they are satisfied with what they are getting. Agencies will post performance standards, measure performance in terms of customer satisfaction, and allocate resources to maximize such satisfaction. Front-line workers will be the primary sources of ideas on how to deliver better services for less. And the federal government will set its goal as providing customer service to equal the best in business.
Three agencies with the bulk of the government's contacts with the public--the IRS, Social Security Administration, and Postal Service--have already begun to work with customer service standards. Each of these agencies has a significant customer service program. Their standards address specific dimensions of customer service, such as waiting times and courtesy. Each is publishing its standards and posting them on the walls of offices where it has contact with the public.
One route for agencies to understand what their customers want is through the use of surveys. This means more surveys will need to be reviewed and approved under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is responsible for these reviews, is looking to streamline its procedures. OMB should delegate its approval authority to departments that are able to comply with the requirements of the Act. OMB should provide training, advice, and interagency coordination. OMB should also clarify guidance on the use of public focus groups as a source of input and streamline the process to renew survey approvals.
Taken collectively, the actions recommended in this report put government's focus squarely on the customer where it belongs. With this focus, all the lessons from both the public and private sector say that rework, make work, and unnecessary tasks fall away, and productivity soars.
Create Customer-Driven Programs in All Departments and Agencies that Provide Services Directly to the Public
The National Performance Review seeks a government where services are customer-driven. If government services are to be customer-driven they must be judged based on the public's expectations. These expectations are being set, in large part, by the quality of services delivered each day by America's corporations. Federal Express says, "when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." Government can learn from the kind of commitments that America's best corporations make and how they view service.
These corporations view service as creating an experience.[Endnote 1] Generating a check or providing a missing piece of information is not all that matters; courtesy, surroundings, complaint procedures, redress, choices, and accessibility all add up to define a quality service experience. And these corporations seek constant feedback from their customers on how they are doing. Can the government live up to this corporate standard? If it does any less the idea will persist that government just doesn't work right.
The government of the United Kingdom believes it can meet this higher standard. Its Citizen's Charter, launched in July 1992, sets the standard for public services to be "up to and beyond the best at present available.'' The Charter goes on to define key principles of service, including accessibility, choice, courtesy, putting things right, setting standards for performance, and others. To carry out these policies, British Rail sets on-time standards, publishes actual results, and discounts next month's rail pass if it doesn't meet the standards.
The idea of setting the standard for federal services to be the equal of those in the private sector may have a huge payoff. It is probably the simplest way to tell the federal work force what kind of service to deliver. Each government employee can immediately draw on his or her own experience to define quality. That is why the Air Force Tactical Air Command adopted its written standard for visiting-airmen's quarters to be "a moderately priced hotel, like Ramada.'' This works much better at no more cost than the thick manual it replaced.
NEED FOR CHANGE
A program to improve government customer service would not start from scratch. Several federal agencies have already begun to empower their employees to focus on their real customers with immediate results.
The Ogden, Utah, Service Center of the Internal Revenue Service processes tax returns. It instituted a total quality program, put its focus on the customer, generated big savings, increased productivity, and won the 1992 Presidential Award for Quality.[Endnote 2]
The employees in Ogden really believe in customer service. A taxpayer, recently down on his luck, hitchhiked from out of state to Ogden hoping to pick up his refund check. The Ogden center doesn't issue refund checks, but the IRS employees pulled up the computer records and found that the check had been sent from the disbursing center to his old address, and returned. They ordered a new check sent to Ogden, but the process would take 10 days, and the hitchhiker had no money. So the employees found him shelter and, from among themselves, collected enough food money to get him through. No wonder they won the quality award.
The customer focus of the IRS center in Ogden is not unique. The Postal Service now routinely surveys customer satisfaction and uses the results to judge performance around the country.[Endnote 3] The Social Security Administration built its new strategic plan on service delivery goals and objectives that focus on its customers.[Endnote 4] There is a Service to the Citizen alliance of information technology leaders from 12 federal agencies collaborating on projects and funding work to sort out how technology can improve service to the government's customers.[Endnote 5] The Commerce Department's International Trade Administration set up a 24-hour-a-day phone system that lets callers select topics from a menu and fax themselves information on the changing trade situation in Eastern Europe.[Endnote 6]
These and other initiatives already under way provide the first building blocks for a customer-driven government, but the government lacks an overall policy statement setting out what it is trying to achieve. Also needed is an initial call to action in order to stimulate broad federal participation. In addition, we need more direct customer input--most current planning is based on what managers or other stakeholders think the public wants.
Similarly, front-line employees need to be heard. They need to be placed at the center of programs to improve quality. Everything written about successful reinvention efforts, public and private, says that front-line employees are the best source of good ideas on how to improve efficiency, quality, and service. Front-line employees need access to training that will help them serve the public better. For example, anyone who handles inquiries from the public should have the opportunity to learn active listening skills. Front-line employees also need the authority to deal with customer issues that they face. Corporate America translates this belief into action. A 1990 Harris Poll of service companies found 92 percent gave employees explicit authority to handle customer problems.[Endnote 7]
Customer and employee inputs will provide a solid basis for setting performance standards for customer services. And what gets measured gets done, so these standards must be published, posted, and tracked. Continuing measurement of customer satisfaction will fit neatly with the performance measurement requirements of the recently passed Government Performance Results Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-62).
Establish an overall policy for the quality of federal services delivered to the public, and initiate customer service programs in all agencies that provide services directly to the public. (2)
The President should issue an Executive Order that would establish this overall standard for quality in services to the public: Customer services equal to the best in business.
The Executive Order would state that the following principles govern the provision of customer services:
--Survey customers frequently to find out what kind and quality of services they want.
--Post service standards and results measured against them.
--Benchmark performance against the best in business.
--Provide choices in both source of service and delivery means.
--Make information, services, and complaint systems easily accessible.
--Provide redress for poor services.
--Handle inquiries and deliver services with courtesy.
--Provide pleasant surroundings for customers.
The Executive Order would recommend that all federal agencies that deliver services directly to the public undertake the following actions:
--Immediately identify who their customers are.
--Survey their customers on services and results desired and on satisfaction with existing services.
--Survey front-line employees on barriers to, and ideas for, matching the best in business.
--Within six months, report results on these three steps to the President.
--Within one year, publish a customer service plan that can be readily understood by their customers.
The required customer service plans would include at least initial customer service standards. Under these plans, customer satisfaction would be sampled often during the year and used as a primary criterion in judging the performance of agency management and in making resource allocations. To support the plan, agencies would provide training needed by employees. For example, front-line employees handling inquires would learn customer service skills, and managers would learn to use results-oriented, customer satisfaction information.
These policies and supporting actions represent a major initiative to put government's focus on people, both the public and front-line employees. Moreover, several of the recommended principles of customer service seek to make government agencies accountable to the public for the quality of the service provided.
To begin with, publishing standards and actual performance results creates a sense of accountability among employees. These results, along with surveys of customer satisfaction, provide a direct basis for judging management and employee performance. In addition, redress by way of an apology and an explanation can be given when individuals are treated poorly, and in some cases the government will be able to put things right by, for example, forgiving penalties or paying interest.
On a broader scale, customer satisfaction can be used as a basis for changing resource allocations. Note that customer satisfaction must measure many aspects of the service experience, but especially results. For instance, when the government runs employee service centers, we need to ask "Did a customer get a job, and at what pay level?" Based on this type of satisfaction measurement, for example, funding might be shifted among service centers in order to deal with problems, or workloads shifted to the best performing locations to improve service within an area. And when the public can actually exercise a choice to obtain a service elsewhere, competition will enter as a powerful stimulus to productivity.
Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports
Creating Quality Leadership and Management, QUAL01: Provide Improved Leadership and Management of the Executive Branch.
Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.
Customer Service Performance Standards--Internal Revenue Service
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) faces a host of big issues in the 1990s. The Service feels budget deficit pressure to improve collections. A one percent increase in voluntary compliance equals $7 billion in annual revenue, but IRS believes that the number of people choosing not to file is growing. In addition, the service holds over $100 billion in gross receivables, all of which must be managed in order to recover even a fraction of it. Besides all this, IRS is awash in paper, handling 1.7 billion pieces annually. Plans are for a major systems modernization to deal with the paper flood.
Major support for the overall plans of IRS comes from an established, internal Total Quality Management program that is intended to improve productivity. Moreover, the IRS refers to its recently developed strategic plan as a business plan and refers to taxpayers as customers.[Endnote 1] IRS is empowering employees in pilot projects that are improving productivity, winning quality awards, and have a strong customer-first flavor. It is also trying out pilot accounting systems that focus on outputs and remove line item controls in budgets.[Endnote 2]
The IRS fosters competition among tax return centers, shifting work loads to those showing the highest productivity. New job opportunities accompany the shift in workload.
The very poor marks given IRS by the General Accounting Office (GAO) and others for phone support are improving. In 1989, one out of three callers got incorrect answers.[Endnote 3] GAO accepts IRS testing that says in 1992 the IRS gave the right answer to taxpayer questions 88 percent of the time.[Endnote 4]
NEED FOR CHANGE
The shift to a customer-driven mentality is well under way at the IRS. The overall IRS mission statement has a customer service flavor: "serve the public by continually improving products and services.''[Endnote 5] Its products are tax forms and notices. Service includes phone support.
The key objectives of IRS all have a customer dimension:
--Reduce taxpayer burden,
--Increase voluntary compliance, and
--Improve productivity and customer
IRS is planning to measure success against these objectives. It is already starting to survey customers. They give high ratings for timeliness of tax forms delivery and poor ratings for product clarity and support.
In another step forward, IRS is increasing the authority of front-line employees to negotiate resolution of issues with taxpayers. This supports its stated goal of resolving a person's tax issues in one IRS contact.
The time to issue refunds is central to customer service at IRS. After IRS finishes processing a return, it creates a computer tape notifying the Financial Management Service (FMS) that this and other refunds are due. The tape is then flown to FMS. FMS processes the tape and issues a refund. Ten days elapse from the time the tape is made until a refund goes out. Transmitting refund information electronically and giving at least selected disbursing authority to IRS might cut this time.
--A refund due on your paper return will be mailed within 40 days; a refund due on your electronic return will be mailed within 21 days when you request a check, or sent within 14 days when you specify direct deposit.
--Our goal is to resolve your account inquires in a single contact; if you have a repeat problem you can contact the Problem Resolution Office, which will resolve the problem in an average of 21 days.
--When you provide sufficient and correct information to an IRS tax assistor and get an incorrect answer, we will cancel related penalties.
--Let us know where our tax forms or
instructions are confusing or difficult--by 1995, we plan to boost the clarity of tax forms and instructions so that 90 percent of individual returns are error-free.
The publication of these service performance standards will represent another step on the part of IRS toward a customer-driven operation. IRS plans to measure performance against these and other standards and seek continuing customer feedback on the importance of particular areas of service. IRS has a broader, aggressive effort to get customer inputs to measure the value added by its full set of initiatives.
2. The Secretary of the Treasury should delegate
disbursing authority to IRS for refunds made using electronic funds transfer and should, for all other disbursements, expedite efforts to transmit refund information electronically between IRS and FMS. (1)
Current modernization plans will give IRS return centers most of the technical capability to do electronic funds transfer. Granting disbursing authority to IRS for these transactions should save time by eliminating the need to transfer information to the FMS before paying the taxpayer.
Similarly, electronically notifying FMS of refund checks to be issued could speed the process compared to shipping tapes by plane. Therefore, IRS and FMS are urged to find ways to do quicker transfers electronically.
Customer Service Performance Standards--Social Security Administration
The scale of the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) contact with the public is huge. It administers Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance; Supplemental Security Income; and the Part B-Black Lung program. It pays over $300 billion annually to 47 million beneficiaries, and it maintains earnings records for 131 million taxpayers.
SSA has 1,300 field offices and gets 60 million 1-800
calls per year, certainly one of the world's largest
1-800 services. The SSA estimates a 26 percent
increase in workload by 2005.[Endnote 1] This is due
primarily to the population maturing. Disability
claims are a trouble spot. The process is slow, and
SSA has a backlog of disability claims, hearings, and
appeals. SSA acknowledges the need for major
improvement in disability insurance
A 1993 Health and Human Services Inspector General's (IG's) report on overall SSA services shows declining customer satisfaction for the fourth year in a row. The IG reports longer waiting times in offices. It links dissatisfaction among 1-800 callers to the number of attempts needed to get through.[Endnote 3]
To deal with a growing workload and backlogs, SSA is planning major automation improvements. It also plans on completing a greater percentage of the work at the first point of public contact and enhancing its telephone answering capacity.[Endnote 4]
NEED FOR CHANGE
SSA has a strong customer orientation, but it has some service problems and its already formidable task is growing. The SSA mission statement says it will administer its programs in an equitable, effective, and caring manner. The SSA strategic plan sets out three overall goals that emphasize the public and its employees.[Endnote 5]
--Serve the public with compassion, courtesy, consideration, efficiency, and accuracy.
--Protect trust funds and instill public confidence.
--Maintain a motivated work force.
The plan also details seven Service Delivery Goals and an extensive list of 34 supporting objectives, ranging from issuing a social security number orally within 24 hours to accuracy in trust fund outlays. The goals and objectives are based in large part on the judgment of SSA management, without the benefit of direct customer input. Appropriately, the objectives do seek to cover the full range of SSA tasks.
The strategic plan proposes the objectives to be reached by the year 2005. There are no interim objectives, so measuring progress between now and then will be difficult. On the other hand, some of the objectives are within reach today, and major initiatives are under way to address those problems that would prevent SSA from achieving some of the objectives.
The actions that follow build on the important baseline established by the strategic plan, and go on to address some of the shortcomings of the plan, which are well understood by SSA management.
--You will be treated with courtesy every time you contact us.
--We will provide you with all the
information you need in order to understand SSA programs, including your own potential for benefits.
--We will also provide you with information about other social service programs that may help you.
--When you call our 1-800 service for information or help, you will reach us on the first call.
These objectives from the strategic plan have an impact on the quality of the SSA's direct interaction with the public. Each is within reach today and, thus, can be set as a standard. Doing so, and then publishing and posting them, will immediately communicate to the public, and reinforce with SSA employees, that the quality of customer service is a priority at SSA.
2. In addition, SSA should obtain customer opinions on all the goals and objectives of the strategic plan, using that input to revise the goals and objectives as needed, set priorities, and establish interim objectives. (1)
Obviously, while courtesy and the helpful information services in Action 1 are critical in an overall customer service program, SSA cannot satisfy its customers without doing the job customers expect in the delivery of benefits and other services. Action 2 addresses benefits and other services delivery. It seeks feedback from SSA customers on the basic assumptions of the strategic plan, and most of the plan focuses on the delivery of specific benefits and other services. The goals and objectives of the plan should be broadly publicized. Comment cards on them should be placed in offices. Focus groups should be used to help sort out the right directions to take. Formal surveys could be done, as well.
These tools should be used to address fundamental issues of customer satisfaction. Are these the right objectives for SSA, or have we missed what matters to you? What areas are most important? How do the proposed numerical performance standards measure up to your expectations? How does SSA performance compare to the level set out in the standard? Answers to these and other questions will provide an improved basis for planning and resource allocation.
Both the actions above are consistent with the SSA overall, customer-oriented approach to the future. For example, in the key problem area of disability claims processing, SSA is working on a major reinvention effort. This project will field test several new models for disability claims processing in fiscal year 1995. The long-term goal is to reduce processing times dramatically, consistent with the strategic plan.
Customer Service Performance Standards--Postal Service
The U.S. Postal Service delivered 166 billion pieces of mail in 1992 and generated revenues of $46 billion. By volume and revenue, business mail accounts for the bulk of its business. However, residential mail delivery and window service in nearly 40,000 offices are the postal services most visible to the public.
The Postal Service has adopted three goals to put itself on an increasingly businesslike basis.
--Improve service and customer satisfaction.
--Strengthen commitment to employees.
--Generate revenues above costs.
The Postal Service's commitment to customer service is being driven by the competitive business environment in document delivery and electronic information services. There is direct accountability because business consumers have a choice of service providers, and postal revenues depend upon customer satisfaction. The Postal Service has instituted a Total Quality Management program, a central feature of which is the goal to achieve 100 percent customer satisfaction over the next several years. Marvin Runyon, the Postmaster General, is committed to improving the accountability, credibility, and competitiveness of the Postal Service. In restructuring the Postal Service in 1992, he created a new emphasis on customer service throughout the organization.
The Postal Service has developed a Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) to track satisfaction of residential customers in 170 metropolitan areas. The CSI measures overall satisfaction levels and more than 35 individual indicators such as courtesy, waiting time, prompt delivery, and complaint response. A contractor, Opinion Research Corporation, administers the CSI quarterly, with responses from an average of approximately 183,000 customers each quarter.[Endnote 1] The CSI has been reviewed by the General Accounting Office (GAO) and is considered to be a statistically valid survey, conducted in a sound and independent manner.[Endnote 2] The External First Class Measurement System conducted by Price-Waterhouse measures, in 95 metropolitan areas, the elapsed time from when a letter is mailed to when it is delivered.[Endnote 3]
The Postal Service recently incorporated the CSI into its employee bonus system. Absolute ranking in CSI, improvement in CSI, and financial success are each counted as one third in determining performance bonuses. Employees represented by two of the Postal Service's major unions and management are participating in this new bonus system. In 1994, the Postal Service plans to replace its system of individual objectives and incentives with one in which performance-based rewards for executives and managers will be linked to organizational and team success in three areas--financial performance, commitment to employees, and customer satisfaction (as measured by CSI).
Between August and November 1992, the Postal Service carried out a large-scale restructuring that eliminated nearly 30,000 positions, focusing on people who didn't touch the mail. According to GAO, the restructuring was carried out "without adversely affecting customer service in the short term. For example, nationally, overnight First-Class mail delivery performance remained stable during the restructuring period.''4 Performance and CSI have remained stable or have improved even after the restructuring.[Endnote 5]
The Postal Service is developing ways to strengthen employee commitment and productivity. It recently initiated focus groups with employees and is taking a number of internal steps to improve employee morale. The Postal Service is also monitoring employee attitudes toward customer service, among other topics, through an annual opinion survey. In the most recent survey, 85 percent of employees indicated that they understood the impact of their work on customer satisfaction.
NEED FOR CHANGE
The Postal Service first set service standards for First-Class mail in 1971. The standards include local delivery overnight, delivery within two days to contiguous states, and delivery anywhere in the United States within three days. Today, 84 percent of First-Class mail is meeting the overnight target for local delivery, 78 percent for two-day delivery, and 82 percent meets the target for third day longdistance delivery according to Price-Waterhouse, which conducts evaluations of the Postal Service's performance.[Endnote 6] However, the delivery standards are not generally known. For example, until recently First-Class mail standards were buried in the back pages of the ZIP Code Directory.
Using focus groups and other means of getting customer input, the Postal Service has identified several additional areas for improving customer service: shortening waiting times at Post Office counters, increasing easy access to postal information, improving complaint handling, and becoming more responsive to the needs of business customers.
Customers in focus groups across the country identified waiting time in retail lobbies as an issue they care about. In response, the Postal Service has developed, and is beginning to introduce nationwide a "service in five minutes'' program. It began in August 1993 with those offices that can demonstrate that they can provide this level of service on a consistent basis. Other offices will need to make operational changes before they are able to participate in the program.
The Postal Service is planning to train front-line employees in the new "service in five minutes'' program. It has developed "service in five minutes or less'' door decals and retail counter display cards to be used in those offices that can satisfy the unit manager and the district team that they can consistently meet the standard.
Easy access to postal information is a second area of service improvement. Basic information, such as the price of a stamp, used to require a trip to the post office or a wait for a telephone representative. In 1988, the Postal Service introduced an interactive Postal Answer Line so consumers can get routine information by using a touch-tone keypad. Although this service is now available to more than 112 million customers in 80 metropolitan areas, it is not well known. The Postal Service is looking at a number of ways to extend this service: for rotary-dial customers using voice recognition technology, for hearing impaired customers who have access to TDD (Telecommunications Device for Deaf and Hearing Handicapped) equipment, and for automated ZIP Code information.
As part of its participation in the National Performance Review, the U.S. Postal Service should expand its plans to display the following standards in Post Office lobbies. (1)
--You can expect First-Class mail delivered anywhere in the U.S. in three days, your local mail overnight.
--You will receive counter service within five minutes.
--You can get postal information 24 hours a day by calling the following local number: (appropriate local numbers will be used).
The standards above are ones that the Postal Service itself has developed and that are included in the Postal Service's plans. The National Performance Review believes that publishing and posting these standards even more broadly will highlight and reinforce the Postal Service's growing program of customer service.
The First-Class mail standard was revised in 1989; it is not well known. Posting it in at least all post offices in the largest 95 metropolitan areas, beginning in the spring of 1994, will enhance the public's awareness of this commitment.
The commitment to service within five minutes is a new standard; the Postal Service began a comprehensive program to introduce it this past summer. It will be posted in retail lobbies nationwide as staff are trained and demonstrate that they can meet this performance standard consistently.
Information on the 24-hour postal information line is currently posted in some post offices. NPR's recommendation will mean that this sign will be placed in all other retail lobbies in the 80 metropolitan areas where this service is offered.
These standards and their public display are part of the Postal Service's plans to reach 100 percent customer satisfaction. As its service levels improve and as it gets additional customer feedback, the Postal Service plans to set additional customer service standards. Currently it is working on two additional areas, complaint handling and improved service to business customers.
The Postal Service is seeking ways to improve its complaint handling processes. It now handles consumer complaints via telephone and written complaint forms that are available in retail lobbies. It is completing what appears to be a highly successful test of a 1-800 number for complaints in two metropolitan areas and has expanded the test to three more cities. The Postal Service hopes to begin nationwide expansion during the latter part of 1994.
Increasing its responsiveness to business customers is also a priority for the Postal Service. Although this program is earlier in its development than the residential program, efforts are under way to develop an index and a survey instrument to measure the satisfaction of business customers. Within the past year, the Postal Service has opened 95 Business Centers nationwide to assist small and mid-size business customers.
The National Performance Review supports the efforts of the Postal Service in making customer service a core part of its strategic planning; using focus groups and customer surveys to assess customer issues and concerns; developing innovative customer service programs; and commissioning and publishing external assessments of customer satisfaction.
Streamline Ways to Collect Customer Satisfaction and Other Information from the Public
Drawing on authority granted in the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, as amended in 1986, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) currently reviews and approves Information Collection Requests (ICRs) from federal agencies to the public. Several recommendations from the National Performance Review (NPR) depend on a greater input of public opinion. For example, the first step in the recommended program to improve customer service (ICS01) is for agencies that deal with the public to identify their customers and survey them on services desired and levels of satisfaction. With this NPR recommended program, frequent surveys of customer opinions would be used to set directions and measure performance.
NPR recommendation REG04, part of the accompanying report on Improving Regulatory Systems, encourages greater use of focus groups and small surveys of the public to test new rulemaking ideas early in the process. The goal is to avoid complicated mid-course program corrections.
The Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting NPR accompanying report, in its recommendation BGT02, proposes surveys of the public as a basic performance measurement method. The findings and purposes section of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 also makes specific reference to customer satisfaction as a necessary performance criterion.
Each of these NPR recommendations seeks to get more public input for a similar reason. Directly asking the public what it wants and how its government is doing will be much more accurate than current practices of making best estimates or using second- or third-hand information about the needs of the public. None of the recommendations for more public input would make their input mandatory. In all cases the public's response would be voluntary.
The primary objectives of the Paperwork Reduction Act are to minimize the federal paperwork burden on those outside the federal government, to minimize the government's cost in collecting information, and to maximize the usefulness of the information collected. Departments and agencies have the primary responsibility for meeting these goals, but may not collect information without OMB approval.[Endnote 1 The act covers all ICRs to ten or more people. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) administers the act within OMB.
Under the act, OMB may delegate ICR review and approval authority to agencies that commit sufficient resources to carry out the responsibilities of the act effectively and that assign the task to a senior official who is independent of program responsibility.2 Review and approval authority has been delegated to the Federal Reserve Board, but that is the only instance to date of delegation.
NEED FOR CHANGE
Requirements in the Government Performance and Results Act, added to NPR recommendations on customer service, regulatory improvement, and performance measurement, would produce a major increase in workload for OIRA. The staff currently working on all ICRs numbers about 35.
Program staff in agencies often describe the process of getting out a survey as already being a significant barrier.[Endnote 3] The goals of the Paperwork Reduction Act to reduce burden on the public and improve quality are unquestionably excellent ones. But NPR's concern is that the process of getting clearance is itself enough of a burden to discourage attempts to get customer opinions.
The most common complaint among agency staff is that the survey approval process takes too long. OIRA's most recent annual report estimates that it takes 65 days to process the average request it receives, including time for public comment.[Endnote 4] Some agency ICR offices agree with that estimate and say they can get expedited processing when needed, but most agencies estimate that the process takes much longer. When agency program staff comment that the process is lengthy, they are typically looking at the time spent preparing the package for review, plus the time spent in agency review, added to the time spent by OIRA.
Whatever the precise cause, clearly OIRA is under pressure to do the job faster. As NPR's recommendations for more frequent customer surveys become reality, the requirement to do a lot more reviews will be added. If ICRs continue to be processed the way they are today and OIRA staff levels are not increased, performance can only decline. But many agencies now have staff experienced in designing packages that can pass OIRA standards-- in effect they now represent another review layer-- and this staff represents a resource that could speed the clearance process if they were given approval responsibility for at least some portion of the ICRs.
Besides the general interest in speeding up the overall clearance process, there are two proposals that home in on specific types of ICRs and seek to reduce the work involved. The first concerns group discussions. Agency interest is growing in the use of focus groups or group discussions of interested individuals brought together to discuss a particular topic. The reason is that focus groups or group discussions represent a potentially simple way of getting customer input. However, the need for ICR clearance on group discussions could be clarified by OIRA.
Focus groups are reviewed in the same ICR process as conventional surveys, although agencies often view them only as a way to get quick, preliminary inputs early in a program's development. OIRA has informally offered the opinion that other forms of group discussion, those without a required script of focus questions, are outside the coverage of the PRA, and thus do not require OIRA review. OIRA should clarify the distinctions between various forms of group discussions and streamline the review process for formal focus groups to reduce the disincentive against using the more structured method.
The second proposal to save time and work concerns renewals of previously approved ICRs, where the questions to be asked and the targets for those questions are unchanged. The agencies' argument is that in these cases it would be appropriate to have special procedures for a quick review, or even an outright delegation of approval authority.
The administrator of OIRA has already begun to improve OIRA management of the overall ICR approval process, including simplifying the tasks agencies face in making applications to OIRA. For example, she has directed her staff to streamline and simplify the ways that agencies must submit materials in support of their requests. The NPR recommendations that follow urge specific actions as part of the Administrator's overall initiative.
A customer is defined to be a member of the public to whom the federal government supplies services or financial assistance directly and individually. A voluntary request would be clearly labeled as such when sent to the public and would exclude any requests where the information is required in order to maintain or obtain eligibility for a program or benefit. It is important that the requests be perceived as voluntary by recipients in order that the burden of supplying the information be a matter of personal choice.
At this point, Action 1 is not intended to include surveys by regulators of regulated entities. The task of managing requests for information from these agencies to regulated entities so that the requests would be perceived as truly voluntary is a difficult one. Nonetheless, NPR believes that the regulatory agencies would benefit significantly from more public input. The following recommendation on focus groups addresses this need in part. However, NPR believes that more research is warranted to define conditions under which voluntary opinion surveys can be done by regulators.
Departments taking responsibility for ICR approval in connection with Action 1 would be accepting the obligation to comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act in its entirety for surveys they approve; a delegation by the Director of OMB would not imply relief from any requirements of the Act itself.
OIRA would retain the right to spot check ICRs. Under the Act, if OMB found Departments unable to meet their responsibilities, the Director of OMB could revoke a delegation.
2. The administrator of OIRA should issue guidance on
focus groups, specifically establishing under what circumstances group discussion activities would be excluded from OIRA review. (2)
This action would allow all agencies to get public opinions in a quicker, less formal way than surveys. However, the guidance should not be interpreted as empowering agencies to convene political focus groups.
3. The administrator of OIRA should greatly simplify
and speed renewal of previously approved ICRs when the questions asked and the recipients of the ICR are unchanged. (2)
This action simply seeks to take advantage of prior work in ICR development and review to reduce the workload on both OIRA and agency staff. The mechanics of the clearance process for renewals would parallel the delegation proposed under Action 1.
The thrust of all three actions is that OIRA should adopt a "steer not row'' posture whenever possible with regard to ICRs. OIRA could offer training programs in the design of collection vehicles. It could advise agency heads on the design of review systems, and establish coordinating mechanisms to help agencies identify collection efforts similar to their own in other agencies. In parallel to agency efforts, OIRA could review completed information collection vehicles and results on a sample basis so as to advise agency heads on opportunities to improve quality and minimize burden. These sampling activities could provide the basis for an ongoing set of OIRA publications about best practices.
Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports
Improving Regulatory Systems, REG04: Enhance Public Awareness and Participation.
Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.
Small Business Administration, SBA01: Allow Judicial Review of the Regulatory Flexibility Act.
Executive Office of the President, EOP01: Delegate Routine Paperwork Review to Agencies and Redeploy OMB Resources More Effectively.
Summary of Actions by Implementation Category
(1) Agency heads can do themselves
ICS02: Customer Service Performance Standards--
Internal Revenue Service
ICS03: Customer Service Performance Standards--
Social Security Administration
ICS04: Customer Service Performance Standards--
(2) President, Executive Office of the President, or
Office of Management and Budget can do
ICS01: Create Customer-Driven Programs In All
Departments And Agencies That Provide Services Directly To The Public
ICS05: Streamline Ways To Collect Customer
Satisfaction And Other Information From The Public
Accompanying Reports of the National Performance Review
Changing Internal Culture
Creating Quality Leadership and Management....QUAL
Streamlining Management Control................SMC Transforming Organizational Structures.........ORG Improving Customer Service.....................ICS
Reinventing Processes and Systems
Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting.....BGT Improving Financial Management..................FM Reinventing Human Resource Management..........HRM Reinventing Federal Procurement...............PROC Reinventing Support Services...................SUP Reengineering Through Information Technology....IT Rethinking Program Design......................DES
Restructuring the Federal Role
Strengthening the Partnership in
Intergovernmental Service Delivery.............FSL Reinventing Environmental Management...........ENV Improving Regulatory Systems...................REG
Agencies and Departments
Agency for International Development...........AID Department of Agriculture.....................USDA Department of Commerce.........................DOC Department of Defense..........................DOD Department of Education.........................ED Department of Energy...........................DOE Environmental Protection Agency................EPA Executive Office of the President..............EOP Federal Emergency Management Agency...........FEMA General Services Administration................GSA Department of Health and Human Services........HHS Department of Housing and Urban Development....HUD Intelligence Community.......................INTEL Department of the Interior.....................DOI Department of Justice..........................DOJ Department of Labor............................DOL
National Aeronautics and Space Administration.NASA National Science Foundation/Office of Science
and Technology Policy..........................NSF Office of Personnel Management.................OPM Small Business Administration..................SBA Department of State/ U.S. Information Agency...DOS Department of Transportation...................DOT Department of the Treasury/ Resolution Trust Corporation..............................TRE Department of Veterans Affairs.................DVA