Managing for Results:

Selected Agencies Need to Take Additional Efforts to Improve Customer Service

GAO-15-84: Published: Oct 24, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 24, 2014.

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J. Christopher Mihm
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mihmj@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

GAO reviewed the customer service standards at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Forest Service, Federal Student Aid (FSA), the National Park Service (NPS), and two services in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)—disability compensation and Veterans' Group Life Insurance (VGLI). GAO found that none of the agencies' standards included all of the key elements of customer service standards (see table). GAO identified key elements of effective customer service standards by reviewing the requirements of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) and executive orders that focused on providing greater accountability, oversight, and transparency. Without all of the key elements present, agencies may not be able to easily communicate performance targets or goals to customers, measure their progress towards meeting those goals, and pinpoint improvement opportunities.

Extent to Which Agencies' Customer Service Standards Met Key Elements

Agency

Customer service standards that include targets or goals for performance

Customer service standards that include performance measures

Customer service standards that are easily publicly available

CBP

No

No

Yes

Forest Service

No

No

No

FSA

Yes

Yes

No

NPSa

No

No

No

VBA's disability compensation

Yes

Yes

No

VBA's VGLI

Yes

Yes

No

Source: GAO analysis of agency documentation. | GAO-15-84

aNPS provided GAO two sets of standards, its “Visitors' Bill of Rights” and its visitor survey descriptions, both of which GAO assessed and determined that neither included key elements.

GAO found that all five agencies provide customers with opportunities to submit feedback, including comments and complaints. CBP and VBA's disability compensation had formal mechanisms for reviewing customer feedback, but the other agencies did not. For example, Forest Service and NPS do not have guidance for when to elevate customer comments from the local level up to the agency level. As a result, these agencies may not be effectively reviewing and addressing customer concerns across the agency.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has taken steps to facilitate the improvement of agencies' customer service initiatives. For example, OMB issued guidance to assist agencies in their implementation of Executive Order 13571, Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service which was issued to strengthen customer service and require agencies to develop and publish a customer service plan. OMB formed a task force to assist agencies with the development of customer service plans. Moving forward, OMB has identified customer service as a cross-agency priority (CAP) goal in 2014 in an effort to elevate the importance of customer service by the federal government and intends to have the Performance Improvement Council (PIC) play a role in the CAP goal implementation planning for customer service.

Why GAO Did This Study

Providing customer service has been a long-standing challenge for federal agencies. GPRAMA requires that agencies establish a balanced set of performance indicators to be used in measuring progress toward performance goals, including customer service. This report is part of GAO's response to its mandate to evaluate the implementation of GPRAMA. It evaluates (1) the extent to which selected agencies and their services are using customer service standards and measuring performance results against these standards, and how selected agencies are communicating standards and using customer feedback to improve customer service; and (2) the extent to which OMB and the PIC are facilitating federal agencies' use of tools and practices to improve customer service. GAO selected five agencies and their services based on prior work in which it surveyed 12 federal agencies that are among those with the most widespread contact with the public. GAO reviewed and compared agency customer service documents to federal legislation and guidance, and interviewed agency officials about customer service.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the five agencies update their customer service standards and that Forest Service, NPS, FSA, and VBA's VGLI implement formal feedback mechanisms to improve customer service. CBP, Forest Service, FSA, NPS, and VBA all agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or mihmj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: According to the Forest Service (FS), they have been laying the ground work for completing the tasks necessary to respond to the GAO recommendations by identifying the staff position that will have primary responsibility for seeing these tasks to completion and they are currently outreaching to fill that vacancy. FS has been exploring the opportunity to include feedback on customer satisfaction for recreation sites and facilities within their digital strategy effort and evaluating the efforts of the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council for overlap with GAO recommendations. FS has begun reviewing their employee performance standards as a reference for developing the public facing customer service standards. FS plans to review best industry practices in both private and public sectors in developing the public facing standards, performance measures, and public availability to those standards.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, to improve Forest Service's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance measures, (3) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (4) develop a feedback mechanism to collect comments agency-wide, which should include guidance or criteria to elevate customer feedback from local and regional offices to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: No update as of June 8, 2016.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of Education should direct Federal Student Aid's Chief Operating Officer, to improve Federal Student Aid's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (2) develop a feedback mechanism that includes guidance or criteria for service providers to elevate customer feedback to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2016, CBP provided us with customer service survey questions they use to collect data. Based on our review of that information, CBP has not committed to establishing performance targets and goals. As we stated in the report, performance goals should be in a quantifiable and measurable form to define the level of performance to be achieved for program activities each year. Although CBP is collecting new customer service data based on survey responses, without predetermined performance targets that align with a customer service standard it is not clear what or if internal targets or customer needs are being met.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection should, to improve CBP's customer service standards: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: According to NPS officials, NPS plans on defining a strategy that describes the intended customer experience for highest customer interactions such as Volunteer in Parks program and Teacher engagement program. NPS will align the strategy with overall organizational strategy, share the strategy with all employees (e.g., documentation, training), and update strategy plans to include performance targets and goals for customer service. NPS also plans on soliciting feedback from customers about their experiences with the VIP and Teacher Outreach Programs, collecting unsolicited feedback from customers about their experiences with the organization (e.g., by mining calls, emails, or social media posts), and gathering input from employees about their experiences with customers and their role in delivering the customer experience. NPS plans to share customer experience metrics and models with all employees (e.g., distribute reports and dashboards, conduct training sessions), publish customer service standards on website so that customers know what to expect, and publish customer service data to ensure actual service levels are transparent. Finally NPS plans on piloting the "Federal Feedback" Button and evaluate for expanded use in fiscal year 2018.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to improve the National Park Service's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (3) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (4) ensure develop a feedback mechanism that includes guidance or criteria to review and elevate customer feedback from local and regional offices to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2014, we reported that customer service standards should inform customers as to what they have a right to expect when they request services. We assessed Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) standards for its disability compensation and its Veterans' Group Life Insurance (VGLI) programs against the following key elements: whether the standards (1) include targets or goals for performance; (2) include performance measures; and (3) are made easily publicly available. We found that the customer service standards for the VBA disability compensation program and VGLI were not easily publicly available and recommended that VBA make its disability compensation and VGLI customer service standards easily publicly available. In March 2016, VBA took action and made its disability compensation and VGLI customer service customer service standards easily publicly available by establishing a navigation bar on its web page that links to a new webpage that explains customer service standards in detail and links to its performance metrics that support those standards. We also reported that the VGLI program did not have a feedback mechanism that included guidance for when service providers should elevate customer feedback to identify the need for and to make service improvements, and guidance that would enable VGLI to determine if customer concerns were localized, specific to a given function, agency-wide, or systemic. As a result, we recommended that VGLI develop such a feedback mechanism. In March 2016, VGLI took action and established guidance for its customer service feedback by assigning control numbers and due dates to track the comments and follow-up on actions. According to VGLI officials, staff record common themes, analyze patterns concerning customer comments, and identify whether service improvements are needed, monthly. Further, trends are elevated and addressed with staff and VGLI leadership, quarterly and as necessary.

    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Veterans Benefits Administration to: (1) ensure standards are easily publicly available to improve disability compensation customer service standards; and (2) ensure standards are easily publicly available and develop a feedback mechanism that includes guidance or criteria for service providers to elevate customer feedback and identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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