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Are You Being Served?

Jeff Zients on the Administration's progress improving customer service across government.

Everyone has a bad customer service story. You know what it’s like – cumbersome paper applications, long wait times, and endless loops on an automated phone system. With advances in technology and service delivery systems, these are becoming rarer. With that, the public's expectations continue to rise, and the Federal Government must keep pace with those expectations.

The Federal Government has taken several steps in the past few years to improve service. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services increased transparency in the previously opaque visa application process, creating an online tracking number to follow one’s application in the Visa process. The Department of Health and Human Services launched the first ever website to collect both public and private health insurance options across the nation in a single place, allowing individuals to sort through the catalog of options to identify the ones that may be right for them. The Social Security Administration redesigned its website to make it easier for people to apply for benefits online. The Consumer Product Safety Commission made publically available a consumer product safety database where consumers can both search for, and report on, consumer product safety incidents.

But we need to do more. At the President’s direction, agencies have developed plans that lay out the steps they’re going to take to improve customer service, including collecting more information from the public, setting clear customer service targets for them to strive to, and identifying ways to use technology to improve the customer experience.

This week, agencies are posting those plans. Across government, these plans reflect a broad range of activities, from simplifying processes to enhancing online tools. A few examples include:

  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will develop an application on its website that will enable a taxpayer to securely send a transcript of his or her tax records to an authorized third party.  A transcript is a summary of a taxpayer’s tax return or account and is often required when taxpayers seek to obtain a mortgage or other loan.  The IRS receives millions of transcript requests annually through traditional service delivery channels such as mail, fax, telephone, or in-person visit.  In FY 2011, the IRS launched an application that allows taxpayers to request transcripts online through; however, they currently only deliver transcripts to the taxpayer’s address on record through the mail.  To better serve taxpayers’ needs, the IRS will conduct a pilot of a new self-service application on that will allow taxpayers to authenticate their identities online and securely send their transcript to certain designated third-parties using the internet. 
  • The Department of State is developing a pilot so that individuals can apply for a passport card online.  The pilot will enable applicants who possess a current, fully valid U.S. passport book to upload an acceptable digital photograph to the internet and make an online payment to apply for a U.S. passport card online.  The pilot will assist the Department in determining if accepting electronic signatures would be feasible for customers while also maintaining the integrity of the U.S. passport as evidence of U.S. citizenship.  Accepting electronic signatures and payments should reduce processing times, overall costs of processing over a million passport cards a year, and ease the application process for U.S. citizens traveling by land and sea to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. 
  • Through's Insurance Plan Finder, the Department of Health and Human Services will launch a new Small Group service, which allows small business owners to see: benefit and cost sharing information for insurance plans available in their local areas by company and plan; and basic pricing comparisons between insurance plans, in addition to the benefits and cost-sharing information previously released. 

We look forward to more improvements ahead, ushering in a new phase for customer service that reduces costs, accelerates delivery times, and improves the overall customer experience.

Jeff Zients is the Deputy Director for Management and Chief Performance Officer.