Customer Service, Government Style

Once an afterthought, government customer service is now closely watched around the globe.

by / October 31, 2007

Who's the best at customer service? This question is asked often in the business world primarily because many company philosophies are based on how well they serve and retain their customers, and how well they keep their profits flowing. Knowing who's the best and how they do it is highly sought-after information.

Until recently, customer service had less priority in government - no one attempted to rank the best or learn how to best serve citizens. This isn't the case today, however. Citizen-centricity way is the new mantra, and the public sector is plowing huge investments of time, labor and taxpayer money into the issue.

And the stakes couldn't be higher. Citizen demand for quality services is at an all-time high, and willingness to pay for these services through taxes and fees is dropping. At the same time, citizen trust in government continues to erode.

For nearly a decade, Accenture has tracked government customer service around the globe and ranked the top performers. The company found four pillars to quality public sector customer service:

  • a citizen-centered perspective in which "necessary" information is organized around the citizen;
  • cohesive multichannel services that are fast, efficient and convenient regardless of the chosen channel;
  • fluid cross-government service at the local, regional and national levels, in turn providing integrated services; and
  • proactive communication and education, which ensures that citizens are well informed about government services.


The Best of the Best
Accenture's newest report on serving citizens, Leadership in Customer Service: Delivering on the Promise, ranks 22 countries based on scores taken from three components: service maturity, customer service maturity and citizen voice.

Service maturity measures the level to which a government has developed an online presence; customer service maturity measures the extent to which government agencies manage interactions with their customers (citizens and businesses) in an integrated way; and citizen voice is based on results from surveys that measure citizen feedback based on the quality of digital government service delivery.

At the top of the ranking is Singapore, a city-nation in Southeast Asia with a population of 4.5 million living in a land area of only 683 square km. Singapore's innovative customer-centric vision and entrepreneurial attitude - backed by an aggressive approach to implementation - has made it a leader in government customer service, according to Accenture.

Singapore launched "infocomm" - a master plan that includes spending $2 billion over five years to raise the level of public service specifically through the use of IT. The country's national portal, MyeCitizen, offers both public- and private- sector services, including 30 government agencies. The city-state ranks high for its multichannel integration, including at least 300 government services accessible via mobile networks.

Canada, which ranks second in the survey, continues its role as a national leader in digital government. Our neighbor to the north was cited for having "one of the most far-reaching and inspirational visions of truly citizen-centric customer service in the world." In 2006, Canada concluded two high-profile projects: Government On-Line and the Service Improvement Initiative, both aimed at transforming the way it delivers programs and services, as well as streamlining and standardizing business processes.

But according to Accenture, if Canada has the vision, it lacks follow-through in terms of implementation, hence its No. 2 ranking. The report provided little in the way of specific achievements over the previous 12 months, instead, focusing on Canada's efforts to promote shared services, improve management and accountability of services, and strengthen its network and security infrastructure.

The United States - ranked No. 3 by Accenture - has made enterprise architecture and shared services much of its focus in recent years. These goals are laudable and beginning to achieve some payback. When it comes to customer service, however, accomplishment levels vary. For example, the IRS received high marks for its customer-friendly Web site. And the General Services Administration launched USAgov (formerly, a multichannel service to provide citizens with information about and from all levels of government.

However, as Accenture points out, other countries have already been doing the same for some time, only better. Meanwhile, federal agencies continue to offer their own versions of citizen contact centers with varying degrees of consistency. As a result, citizens believe the federal government's customer service isn't improving over time. Where the feds score high, however, is with cross-government collaboration, particularly in shared services regarding payroll.

The small country of Denmark, with a population of 5.46 million, is ranked slightly behind the United States. The Danish government has undergone numerous public-sector reforms that brought significant change, including a reduction in the number of municipal governments from 271 to 98, and the merger of 14 counties into five regions.

The goal is to simplify government in the Scandinavian country and make the public sector more efficient. It has also led to the creation, which is still ongoing, of customer service centers that will bring government closer to citizens and businesses.

Though all the reshuffling hasn't yet created the level of collaborative services expected, the work continues. The country has a national portal that offers more than 600 self-access services, some of which are only accessible electronically.

Sweden, another Scandinavian country - with a population of 9 million - but large in size at 410,934 square km - has also proven adept at customer service, ranked at fifth overall. Sweden is pushing the envelope for electronic service delivery by setting targets and incentives to get the government's highly decentralized agencies to use IT more broadly.

While the Swedish government doesn't have plans to build a national call center, it's looking at ways to strengthen cross-government collaboration. For example, the country's Healthcare Information Service has partnered with a large pharmacy chain and several local governments to give free medical advice over the phone or via the Internet.

The Internet and landline channels are the Swedes' preferred methods for communicating with their government, as usage of walk-in centers has dropped dramatically over the past year.


Mature Moves
Ranking six through 10 are Norway, Finland, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan respectively. Interestingly the European powerhouses of Germany at 15th and France at 17th continue to lag. For Germany, a lack of improvement in customer satisfaction and overall service makes it one of the worst-performing European countries measured by the survey. Only Spain is ranked as low.

So how does Germany, France or any government move up the customer service maturity ladder? It takes a customer-centric vision, an enabling infrastructure and a high-performing work force to get started, according to Accenture. Start with pilot approaches, learn from the results, and then scale the processes and solution rather than wait and go full bore.

"Governments should put a reasonable amount of effort into developing a vision, but they should also set parameters around the time it takes to do it," according to the report. "Rather than spending endless cycles striving for perfection, governments should not be uncomfortable starting with a good enough vision and refining as they go. A tentative wait and see attitude will manifest itself very quickly in citizens' disappointment: Their expectations are accelerating, and no progress is akin to falling behind."

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.