Customer Service Challenges Faced By Government

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Since it’s an election year, and thoughts are turning to the political process, and by extension, government and how it operates I thought I’d share this, and solicit comments.

The Challenges Government Faces in Delivering Customer Service

Q: Recently, you participated in an online chat on how governments can improve customer service to citizenry. First question, is customer service an impossibility where government is concerned?

Robert: Easy answer. It’s not an impossibility, but government plays a different societal role than do any other organizations, and that creates a lot of challenges, particularly for the government employees who interact with customers. These challenges should never serve to excuse rude, uncaring behavior on the part of any government employee, but they are a reality.

Q: Is there anything specific you can tell us about some of the difficulties?

Robert: Sure. While governments "serve" customers, often they are charged with regulating; giving or removing permission for things, for the "customers". For example, consider Driver and Motor Vehicle Licensing, where drivers are tested, evaluated before they can drive. First of all, nobody likes to be told they’ve failed. They get angry. Second, DMV employees can’t soften the blows of the paperwork and hoops customers have to go through, by offering them a discount if things take too long. That’s not an option. Government staff don’t have the options to offer their customers.

Keep in mind that there’s no business on the planet that has such a wide range of clientele and responsibilities. it’s incredibly diverse. So, you have Homeland Security staff, restaurant and safety inspectors, building inspectors, immigration officers, IRS and tax collectors, and on and on. It’s really hard to give bad news to citizens and not have to face anger.

Q: But is the stereotype of uncaring, stupid, inflexible and slow government employees accurate?

Robert: Probably not. But some stereotypes are accurate some of the time, and there’s no question that the interactions with government can be frustrating. But it’s not because the employees don’t care, at least in my experience, but that they cannot be flexible, and that’s for good reason, and the employees have to work within a system that is quite slow, and there’s actually some good reasons for that, too.

Citizens tend to attribute failures to flaws in the employees they interact with, and certainly not saying they are perfect, but in many respects they aren’t that different from any of us who work outside of government.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that the very people who yell loudest about how poor government customer service is are the people who have almost NO understanding of how their own governments work, and more importantly, why. They just don’t like government, and that’s just about it and nothing is going to change their opinions — a bit like racism or sexism. Faced with positive experiences they discount it as the "exception that proves the rule".

Q: So, you are saying that these stereotypes or prejudices make it more difficult to provide effective service to some people?

Robert: Indeed, because often a citizen customer is angry and expects to be mistreated even before they arrive or call. They are "ready to blow".

Q: You mentioned that the loudest complainers are often the least informed about government. How so?

Robert: We don’t do a particularly good job of teaching kids about their governments, in part, because when they learn about government, they are often too young to absorb the most important parts.

For example, ask the average citizen why government frustrates them so much, and you’ll get words like "bureaucratic", "uncaring", "slow", and "red tape", but you won’t find one in a hundred people who can properly explain why those things are the case.

Q: Well, I don’t know the answer, so I’m sure we’d all like to hear that.

Robert: It’s all about checks and balances. In earlier days, and not so very long ago, let’s say in the 40’s and 50’s, government was quite different. Power was concentrated in the hands of a very few people, and corruption was far more rampant. The Tammany Hall era is what it’s sometimes referred to, where the boss, (let’s say a mayor) could do pretty much anything he wanted in hiring, firing, contracting etc.

As a response to rampant corruption, government restructured to ensure that no ONE person, or his cronies could have enough power to easily corrupt the processes — the spending of public monies. Government made everything much more formal and regimented, with everything important extensively documented, hence all the paper work needed to get things done. And of course that’s where the inflexibility comes from.

You can’t call up the mayor, an old school chum and get a contract by chatting him up, at least not easily. Now, you have to be on the list to get a request for proposal, submit a formal one, wait, have your proposal reviews by a panel of people, get chosen, then have your contract approved by the legal department, the senior executive of the government department, AND, often the politician in charge of the department.

Each ugly tiring step, so annoying to citizens, dilutes any one person’s power. It’s an essential way to combat inequities, unfairness and corruption and to protect how tax payer’s money is spent. Of course, those things still exist, but they are no longer embedded in the government system as they used to be. Corruption used to be built in to government systems. Now, when it occurs, it’s a result of the individuals in government using bad judgment or being dishonest.

The whole long processes, so inflexible are also there because government can’t "make exceptions" because for each exception there will be another hundred people yelling they’ve been hard done by. So, everyone, at least theoretically is treated the same — made to go through all the hoops.

Q: So your suggesting most citizens don’t know any of that?

Robert: Did you know it before I explained it?

Q: No. Uh, good point. Before we finish, any more challenges you feel government faces with respect to customer service.

Robert: Let me see. We’ve got:

  • Poor understanding of why the bad aspects of government customer service are a result of protecting from corruption.
  • The unique position of government with respect to saying no to people.

I have at least two more to add. One, Decisions made by companies like Walmart, AT&T, or the many other business out there can have some affect on a customer’s life, but let’s face it. You get treated badly at Walmart, you go down the street to Zellers. And it’s no big deal if you don’t get your pickles. It’s not like that with government. Two, if you fail your driving test, and don’t get a license, or have your license suspended, that could mean you lose your means of making a living. A building inspector discovers you made errors in construction, and it could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. Or, a unfavorable report from a government social worker could mean your children are taken away from you. Walmart can’t do that. At least not yet.

There’s lot more riding on government decisions, and it’s not like you can go anywhere else. It is the only game in town. That means government staff work with a hugely higher proportion of upset, backed into a corner customers than do any other industries, and that requires a much larger repertoire of skills on the part of government staff.

It’s not an easy thing. Again, not making excuses and I’ll continue to try to foster better customer service in government, but it would be nice if people would stop stereotyping, and start trying to understand the context of government – the the responsibility is to protect the welfare of all citizens, not just "you".

I know we are going to do a series of interviews on government topics, so be sure to remind me about the issue of skills and training, and…um…I forget…

Q: Well, you’re getting old Bob. Maybe you’ll remember for the next time.

Robert Bacal Published by permission. For more interviews on customer service topics, click here

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.

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