Can Customer Service Help Save Government? A Post-Election View

November 8, 2012

Here in the United States, we just finished a presidential election, and it got me thinking about government efficiency and effectiveness. This post will not be political (and I hope others will embrace that spirit in this discussion), because it does not matter what your ideological beliefs are — I think we can all agree that, in most cases, government could do a better job of delivering its services.

Polling generally proves out that citizens have a poor view of not only their elected representatives but of most customer facing agencies. The acronym DMV is a punch line for standing in line. The post office is used as the example of a financially and operationally mismanaged business concern.

Government customer service is, in general, a contradiction in terms.

Now, this is not a swipe at the many local and state agencies that have made concerted efforts to better serve their customers, the citizens. Nor is it meant to demean the many government employees who want to do a great job but are hamstrung by bureaucracy and excessive policies.

This post is merely a quick question about the state of service across the governmental spectrum as a whole.

Does Government Customer Service Exist?

We have written about oligopolistic firms and how they are able to be successful without good customer service due to the lack of competition. Government takes the dynamic a step further, because, for the most part, government is a monopoly, subject to no competition at all.

Bad service or good service — government remains.

And that is exactly the problem, most governmental agencies do not think of their citizens as customers, because they do not have to.

So, the question I pose: Can a focus on customer service help save government?


  • What if the longest wait at the DMV for anything other than a driver’s test was ten minutes?
  • What if government employees were evaluated and promoted based on their service delivery?
  • What if county zoning officials were required to respond to contractors in one business day?
  • What if government communications focused on the options you have and not the penalties you face?
  • What if government employees were, heaven forbid, actually empowered to solve customer issues on the spot?
Can Customer Service Help Save Government | Sleeping Office Worker

This election season has garnered a lot of discussion about how disenchanted people are with both the political process and government in general. Sure, the vitriol of campaign season is a turn off to many, but it is the everyday interactions citizens have with governmental agencies at all levels that cement this feeling on an ongoing basis.

If going to the DMV was the best experience of someone’s day, their attitude towards government would be better — campaign ads or not.

In the end, customer service will not determine whether an agency is funded or a program is created — that is what the political process is for.

What customer service can do is make sure that once agencies are created or programs are in place that they deliver their services effectively and efficiently, making for happier customers and a more satisfied citizenry.

What do you think? Can customer service help save government?

5 thoughts on “Can Customer Service Help Save Government? A Post-Election View”

  1. Interesting perspective here. I think the lack of customer service in most of our government agencies and services has become status quo. We dread going to the the DMV as we know it will take at least one half of a day, and a painful one!

    While I don’t think customer service alone will save government I do believe customer service must start to be a thought and something that is offered if they want to get the support of the majority.

    1. Thanks for the comment Pam! Status quo is right. We had an experience recently where a govt employee was trying to help some colleagues figure out a business license issue. The person had been working with them for days, then in the middle of a phone call, the employee’s supervisor took the phone from the employee and told my colleague that his department would not be providing them anything and could not be of any further help. It could have been a great experience and such an easy win for government.

  2. We’ve certainly all had frustrating experiences with government agencies. And I agree that they could be more efficient. However, I don’t agree with your assertion that “most governmental agencies do not think of their citizens as customers, because they do not have to.”

    Your post is timely because I just wrapped up a project ghost-writing a paper for a large tech firm about the experiences agencies across the country have had trying to upgrade their IT systems to provide better service to constituents. The paper was based on a survey done of heads of agencies in all the states.

    I might not have known before working on this paper, but now I can tell you it’s ALL about delivering better customer service and serving constituents better, within the budgetary constraints. After reviewing the extensive study, reading comments from agency staff, and writing the paper, it’s clear that employees and heads of these agencies care as much about serving their customers as businesses do.

    They have huge challenges, though: threading a ton of regulations, coordinating across multiple agencies, integrating disparate technical systems–many of them outdated.

    It’s a fact that as businesses get bigger, they get less efficient. Having worked at start ups and large companies, I’ve seen it myself. Companies, such as defense contractors, that are hampered by extensive regulations are also less efficient than companies that aren’t in the government sphere.

    So, in government agencies, you essentially have the worst of all worlds: they are essentially very large ‘companies’ that are heavily regulated with tight budget constraints that must coordinate closely with other very large companies (in the form of other agencies).

    It doesn’t make it easy to deliver the best service. But that doesn’t mean the employees don’t care and aren’t trying.

    1. Hi Neicole,

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate you taking the time to write it.

      While I do understand and acknowledge the extraordinary constraints placed upon most government agencies, I still believe that “most governmental agencies do not think of their citizens as customers.” Why? Because I believe that if you want to see what is important to someone you look at what they do, not what they say (at least overall). The same is true of organizations.

      An example of what I mean: So, Agency X needs each citizen to fill out Form A — that’s the law. But that doesn’t excuse why the agent didn’t stand up to greet you when you came in… or why the agent handed you the form and said “here, fill out both sides” instead of “Please fill out both sides of the form, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.” This is simple training and could cost essentially nothing.

      My point: There are so many things that government agencies could do, even within their constraints, and many of them don’t. As you point out in your comment, there are a lot of reasons for this, and I am certainly painting with a broad brush right now. However, I still believe that overall the lack of accountability has a lot to do with why govt agencies do not try to do even the things they can.

      My hats off to the people who work at these agencies who really try to do the best with what they have! Thanks again for the great comment.

  3. Pingback: Customer Support: How a Small Team Can Produce Results

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