Which Customer is Right?

February 1, 2000

Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing team opened an early Christmas present in December when it released the first-ever government-wide customer satisfaction survey. Conducted under a $700,000 contract with Arthur Andersen and the University of Michigan Business School, the survey showed that moms and dads are mostly happy with Head Start, reference librarians are happy with the Environmental Protection Agency, community development block grant recipients are happy with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and so on down the list.

Agencies that picked easy-to-please customers ranked the highest in the survey. The Education Department, for example, picked primary users of department publications, not teachers or parents.

Agencies that picked harder-to-please customers such as international travelers (Customs), grocery shoppers (Food and Drug Administration), veterans (Veterans Health Administration), park and forest users (Park Service and Forest Service), commercial pilots (Federal Aviation Administration), and health and safety professionals (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) deserve Gore’s Hammer Award for interviewing their harshest critics. Agencies can learn a great deal about how to do their jobs better by talking to the disaffected, not the ones who are receiving presents government gives through grants to the states. But even these courageous agencies could learn something by interviewing people who never showed up for services at all. It is no wonder that parents like Head Start and moms like the Women, Infants, and Children’s nutrition programs. Both programs would be on anyone’s list of the government’s best work. But parents are hardly the only customers of the two programs. Try the teachers who see the kids everyday, or the school administrators who have to fill out the grant forms, or the state governors who have to manage the cross-cutting mandates that the federal programs impose.

These choices reveal a flaw with using customer satisfaction to measure government performance. Much as one can admire the idea that government agencies ought to stay in touch with the outside world, there is no such thing as a single government customer. What makes government different from the private businesses that Andersen and Michigan list as benchmarks is that government does not get a choice about the many disparate and sometimes downright disagreeable customers it serves.

Take the FAA as an example. According to a survey of seven different customer sets (commercial and recreational pilots, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, maintenance firms, union representatives, and frequent fliers) to be released in February by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, all of FAA’s customer groups mostly agree that the agency is doing an excellent or good job ensuring that airplanes are safe to fly, regulating air traffic, preventing terrorism and regulating flight procedures. Ratings were only slightly lower for FAA’s performance in certifying that air travel workers are well-trained and competent. FAA’s customers also agree that the agency respects the rights of those it regulates, would never certify something as safe if it was not, and is courteous and professional.

So much for the satisfactions. Although they were confident that FAA keeps accurate records, the five groups also said FAA works too slowly, makes rules and forms more complicated than needed, and allows regulation to get bogged down in unnecessary details, losing sight of the big picture. In theory, of course, that is what reinventing government was all about. It was not just to be about the cosmetics of better service but also about slimming down the bureaucracy and getting things done faster.

The disagreements reveal a second and possibly fatal flaw with the customer satisfaction approach. It is not clear just which of the complaints merit attention and which are the natural result of choices made in a democratic, not corporate, setting. Moreover, the better some agencies do their jobs, the angrier their customers will get. The fact that roughly half of the airline companies and pilots surveyed by Pew said the agency is more interested in issuing penalties than solving problems may actually be a sign that FAA is doing its job well.

Unfortunately, the customers almost always agree on the bureaucracy. Government employees earn high marks for courtesy and professionalism across the board, but their agencies are viewed as sluggish and inefficient. Even as they give government kudos for courtesy, the government’s customers agree that government has to work faster and smarter.

Congress and the President hardly need a $700,000 survey to prove that point. They could just as easily spend the money doing a study about the maze of contradictory laws, overlapping jurisdictions and utterly confusing signals they send about how government can be all things to all customers with dwindling resources, a draining talent pool and rapidly aging administrative systems. But Congress and the President already know the conclusion to that study, too. They need to spend more time flattening the hierarchy, revitalizing the workforce, and modernizing systems. That is just the kind of customer service the public would really notice, and would be a great Christmas present for next year.

Paul C. Light is the author of The New Public Service, which will be published by the Brookings Institution later this year.