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Government and Customer Service - An Oxymoron? Why Do People Perceive the Government As Being Poor At Customer Service?

It's a song as old as the first government. Government is bureaucratic. It doesn't reward good customer service. Government is full of forms. Government employees don't care. They are lazy. The litany goes on. Why are the perceptions of government so negative?

A Complex Question In A Complex Time

It's a question that doesn't have an easy answer, because government is one of the most complex human systems on the planet, and the constraints put upon many government employees (often for good reason) make it difficult for government employees to meet the expectations of customers. With that in mind here are some points to consider so we can get closer to the answer.

Checks and Balances In Government

In order to move towards fair and equal treatment of citizens, and to combat corruption in government, a system emerged, in response to the Tammany Hall era, to make sure that power was distributed across people and departments. Checks and balances, a very old concept underlying democratic government, particularly in the U.S. system, are set up to remove discretion from the equation, so that government operates on the basis of fairly rigid policies and procedures. That's to improve fairness, but at the expense of flexibility.

The employee you/we encounter in government MUST conform to policy and procedures and often don't have the discretionary power that the small business owner has. Government is set up for democracy, and that means equal and fair treatment, and the structure of government doesn't allow much variance for the employee to meet customer needs.

Ultimately, one has to "pay something" to have the kind of democratic government most want. If you remove the policies and restrictions, give more power to employees, remove checks and balances, you end up with more people who will use patronage, favoritism, nepotism to further their own agendas.

The government appears inflexible and overly bureaucratic in an attempt to give the appearance of, and reality of, equal and fair treatment of citizens. It IS inflexible and often bureaucratic.

The Complex Government System

Complex systems result in poorer customer service. That applies to any system or, for that matter, any company or business. As a result of the checks and balances built into government, the system becomes complex, in terms of both human systems and technological systems. That's why a citizen customer must often interact with multiple departments, and multiple people in order to get something simple accomplished. It contributes to the sense that the customer/citizen is passed from person to person with nobody taking responsibility to actually help (passing the buck). It's often the case that the employee who sense the customer to yet another department is perceived as lazy, but that's usually not the case. The SYSTEM forces the employee into that position, and the SYSTEM exists for many good reasons.

The Regulation Factor

The government plays a role in regulating citizens to protect other citizens. It is admittedly a very flawed system but it's still the best we have. One thing that most people don't think about is the common expectation that the government will regulate other people, but let "me" do as I please. If you want government to protect you, you have to accept that they will regulate YOU as well as people who might do you harm or take advantage. That makes most people mad. If the government responds to MY complaint about my neighbor's loud music, but then tells me when I'm allowed to chop down a tree on my own property, I applaud the fact I can now sleep in peace, and yell like crazy about the "damned government".

That's the reality of government. It has a role that will put it in conflict with almost everyone on one level or another, while also doing things that are perceived as good when the actions help US as individuals.

We remember the bad things government does TO us, far more than the good things government does to ensure we will not be trampled by our neighbors, or corporations and competitors.

The Deadwood Principle

There's a perception that government employees are lazy, stupid and slow, and simply do not care. Having worked in government for a number of years, and provided services to government for over twenty years, I can tell you that this is an inaccurate explanation for poor customer service. Of the thousands of government employees I've encountered in my work (and at municipal, state, provincial and federal levels) I'm comfortable with the idea that the percentage of lazy, uncaring employees is NOT much higher than in the private sector.

HOWEVER, there is one reality that applies, and it is a fault. There are more employees who are essentially non-contributors in government -- the deadwood, if you like that term. It's not a high percentage, but there is a tendency for older, less able government employees to be shuffled off to some other government department to molder, rather than to be fired for cause. Many of these are quite high paid people, managers for example, who simply shouldn't be managers, who get moved, but kept at high salaries, to other areas.

Customer Demands of Government

The customers government serves are often angry and frustrated, and they are angry for a number of reasons. It's not enjoyable trying to get things done via government offices. True! But there's another aspect that's different from what exists in public sector.

Government customers often focus only on THEIR own issues, and care not at all that government serves everyone (or tries to). Government customers are often ill-informed about why things are so difficult, and make unreasonable demands upon employees. It's a sad fact that we don't each our children enough about government to understand why it does what it does, and the good things it brings. As a result the expectations are...well, crazy. Again, everybody wants government to work on their behalf and people don't realize or care that government has to work to benefit others, including neighbors, competitors and so on.

The result is that it's probably impossible to meet those expectations.

But...What SHOULD be Better

First, government should be better at removing people who simply aren't doing their jobs, and stop shunting them about. New "renewal attempts" have tried to focus on merit, and rebuilding the public sector, but mostly they fail, only to be repeated in a few years. (There are also good reasons why that happens, although there should be no excuses on this one).

Second, government is notoriously poor at communicating and explaining things to customers, in a way that helps them understand what government staff can and can't do, and why. When the completion of a government form involves reading four pages of instructions, written in terms nobody can understand, not even the employees, that's a problem. It's the job of employees in government to guide citizens through the complexity, and that burden shouldn't be on the "government customer". Governments are terrible at that.

Third, as an internal issue, employees in government need to understand the system they work within so they can help customers. That's often not the case. It's amazing how often I've encountered government staff who cannot explain WHY the customer has to do this or that. The flow of information has to go through the employee to the customer, and if employees don't understand the system, how can they explain it to customers? They can't.

This is even more important when policies are changed from the top of the government heap, something that happens fairly often as the political masters change.

Fourth, the government needs to simplify as much as possible where the customer meets the system. Most governments have made great strides in this area, via one stop contact centers, website repositories of online forms and information, and related efforts. There's still a long way to go.

The Good News, Often Not Noticed

Since I started in government some 25 years ago, there have been great strides made in how customers are served. It IS a lot better, particularly with the amalgamation of customer facing departments into more service oriented work units. Unfortunately, most customers haven't seen enough progress to counter-act their "traditional" views of customer service from government and to overcome their suspicions and fears of government.

For example, if I want to renew my driver's license, order a new social insurance card, and do run of the mill things, I can do that in ONE place now, rather than spend an entire day running from office to office.

The Internet has resulted in information portals that also cut down on getting policies and procedures explained, although there is a need to make these comprehensible.

On the flip side, though, with both good and bad consequences, governments have pared down staff, in almost every jurisdiction,. That means there are less staff, and certainly less middle management, and this process continues. Sometimes the right people are let go. Sometimes not. At least less of our tax dollars are spend on government salaries.

There has been progress. It's far from perfect. It will never be close to perfect. It's good to remember that the government employees you meet are from the same planet, live in the same country, and may live in the house next door to yours. They are just like you, no lazier or stupider, on average. It's simply that they work in a system that is huge, hard to change, complex, and therefore slow moving. Hardly consolation, I know.


About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


Robert Bacal

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