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Partnership for Reinventing Government

Whether or not the SSA web presence is state of the art, Centrelink in Australia is being touted as a state of the art online social security processing system that serves customers in an e-government context (Edwards, 2004). According to best practices in the literature, Centrelink uses a “life events framework to match available services to the reasons customers are seeking assistance” (Edwards, 2004, p. 5). After an initial call, the customer is sorted into one of eleven life events, based on their questions, and directed elsewhere in the site to assist them.

This one-stop-shop approach is designed to “improve citizen convenience and provide integrated service offers tailored to the needs of individual customers” (Edwards, p. 3). This customer-centric system has found that customers do find it helpful, knowledgeable, prompt and efficient, easy of access, and integrated to the whole Social Security system (Edwards, 2004). The degree to which SSA online presence at present matches Centrelink is uncertain. Customer Service in governmental agencies: Best practice versus current practice

Customer service as a concept has become deeply ingrained in the management theory of government agencies (Farmer, 2001; Harmon & Scotti, et. al. , 2000; International Labor Office (ILO), 2006; Selen & Schepers, 2001; Van Fleet & Wallace, 2002). As a result, a recent survey found that “government is now virtually equal with the private sector in terms of what it calls customer satisfaction” (Farmer, 2001, p. 104). In a survey of customer satisfaction by persons using federal agencies, “the government received an overall score of 68. 6 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index” (Farmer, p. 104). This compared to 71. 2 by the private sector.

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And, moreover, while the federal government’s score was the same over three years, the private sector’s satisfaction scores dropped slightly. Among the federal programs receiving the highest customer satisfaction scores were the Office of Student Financial Assistance, in the Department of Education, and The Custom Service’s Program for Clearing the Baggage of International Travelers (Farmer, 2001). One expert noted that the federal government may indeed be ahead of the private sector, given that customers must express satisfaction in the context of issues like regulations and taxes that they would not necessarily feel positive about.

In addition to serving customers well, results of another survey confirm that happy employees provide good service. The survey indicated that 63 percent of federal employees “liked their jobs” (Farmer, 2001, p. 204). The most favorably rated departments in terms of employee satisfaction the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the General Services Administration. Moreover, “the Department of the Navy had the greatest employee satisfaction increased, from 58 percent in 1999 to 68 percent (in 2001)” (Farmer, p. 204).

It is likely that the progress that government agencies have made in customer service is the result of programmatic efforts to alter the orientation of agencies vis-a-vis their customers, including the Partnership for Reinventing Government (Farmer, 2001). Overall, reforms have apparently paid off, as government agencies are indeed satisfying their customers more and more. While the customer service orientation has become so pervasive as to almost be orthodoxy in government reform, some researchers still contend that the customer service model raises problematic philosophical questions.

The term customer derives from the private-sector, and usually means someone who purchases goods or services (Van Fleet & Wallace, 2002). Customer, moreover, usually implies that one does business “customarily” with another, meaning on a regular basis (Van Fleet & Wallace, p. 6). The problem is that in the private service the idea of customer service is rather cynically limited to “a function of return on investment” (Van Fleet & Wallace, p. 7). For the most part, this means that customer service is always limited by the bottom line.

Thus, “there is in the customer service models and practices of many industries a sub-theme of customer service being a fundamentally unpleasant task that is undertaken only because customers are a necessary component in the investment-to-profit cycle” (Van Fleet & Wallace, p. 7). In the case of large, competitive private sector entities, customer service may simply entail a phalanx of services all designed to get the customer to limit him- or herself to the array of products offered.

In many cases, such a model does not and cannot apply to government agencies. Public libraries have often, for example, been encouraged to act more like chain bookstores, and yet the chain bookstore “serves” customers by offering them a limited and homogenous array of books in a manner that a library, dedicated to other principles, cannot (Van Fleet & Wallace, 2002). Moreover, some argue that the customer-ization of such public service activities as teaching and healthcare is actually dangerous (USA Today, 2007).

Most public institutions are encouraged to treat their patients or students as customers, according to the current ethos that sees customer service as providing more accountability for services (USA Today, 2007). Unfortunately, Hutton argues, “when institutions like schools, hospitals and churches treat their students, patients and members as customers, the result is almost always the opposite—those institutions almost inevitably begin to pander to their audiences, becoming more responsive, but to the wrong things” (USA Today, p. 7).

As a result, these agencies begin to “lose sight of their basic mission and ultimately become less accountable” (USA Today, p. 7). Moreover, in some public agency contexts, the ethos of the customer is always right usually “leads to a variety of problems, including a lack of discipline, a dumbing down of standards, cheating and other forms of dishonesty, social promotion of under qualified students, out-of-control grade inflation, a focus on self-esteem rather than character-building, and a tendency to tell students what will make them happy rather than what will make them educated” (USA Today, p. 7).

In the case of hospitals and healthcare, customer service has “created more problems than they have solved, adding new layers or costs and bureaucracy” and often leaving medical decisions in the hands of HMO or insurance persons (his, 2002). The Social Security Administration has dedicated itself, according to a strategic plan it issued in 1997, to “deliver customer-responsive, world-class service,…..

to make SSA program management the best in the business…to be an employer that values and invests in each employee…. and to strengthen the public understanding of the social security systems” (ILO, 2006, p. 1). In order to achieve these ends, the SSA has instituted as “single national service-delivery structure” (ILO, p. 1). This system is kept in working order through efforts to “enhance efficiency, avoid duplication of effort and increase opportunities to provide one-stop services to its customers” (ILO, p. 1).

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