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Stealth Mode

Taking a cue from the private sector, Mayor Richard Daley launched a secret shopping program in late 2005.

by / April 25, 2007

How often have you stood in a glacier-paced line at your local Department of Motor Vehicles office or traded curt remarks with one of its "customer service representatives" to resolve clear-cut, mundane business?

You may think, "My taxes pay this person's salary whether I get treated well or not. It's too bad governments don't use secret shoppers to keep workers in line."

Taking a cue from the private sector, Mayor Richard Daley launched a secret shopping program in late 2005, strictly for internal quality assurance purposes, that regularly submits all city agencies to random secret shopping visits.

For example, a "customer" might mystery shop Chicago's 311 service to evaluate an operator's overall courteousness, helpfulness and response level.

Recruiting Shoppers

The initiative was an outgrowth of an 80- to 100-question review process the mayor already used for quantitatively measuring agency performance.

"We wanted a qualitative tool to ensure that in addition to doing things quickly [and] effectively, we did them in a user-friendly manner," said Ron Huberman, the mayor's chief of staff.

The mayor's office uses interns to do the secret shopping, lessening the costs of the program. Huberman said utilizing interns keeps the secret shopper staff fresh because of their regular turnover rate. The set number of secret shoppers hovers at approximately 10 during fall and spring, but often jumps to 30 in the summer when the office has more interns.

"We put interns through training to understand what we want them to document and how we want them to evaluate their experience," said Huberman. "Then we send them out."

One secret shopper might approach an agency pretending to contest his or her water bill. A second shopper might attempt to seek social service benefits from another agency.

"We very carefully screen the interns for maturity to make sure we're getting ones with good judgment and observational skills," Huberman said. 

"There is not a master tool that we use," he added, noting that shopping criteria are custom-designed for each agency. "Some things are standard to all secret shopper experiences. Was the staff being engaged knowledgeable and courteous? If it's an online experience, was it clear and easy to interact with [agencies'] systems? Was the agency's facility clean? Was the signage appropriate? Was it well lit? Was it easily accessible?'"

One secret shopper spoke to Government Technology on condition of anonymity to preserve his effectiveness on the job.

He began secret shopping agencies in September 2005. Some assignments are quick three-hour tasks, he said, but others can consume three weeks of repeated calls to test for consistency. Occasionally he visits an agency and conducts exit polls of citizens' satisfaction with wait times and helpfulness.

The worst review he said he gave an agency went to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). It was a long-term evaluation in which he made repeated calls with questions submitted by the department's commissioner.

"There were certain things they [the commissioner's office] wanted asked to see if the people serving as the residents' first line of communication were saying the right things," the shopper said. "We made phone calls from anonymous lines -- usually cell phones or other noncity lines -- into their offices and pretended to be developers or residents with questions about real estate issues or zoning issues."

He said the agency's main problem was excessive wait times for returned phone calls about various questions.

Facing the Music

Each intern completes a report and presents it personally to the agency's commissioner and deputy commissioner at that agency's routine performance review meeting. The room is usually filled with commissioners from other agencies, the shopper said.

If the intern reports unfavorable experiences, the agency

submits a document detailing how it will ensure a higher rating on that point in the future. The secret shopper said presenting his report to the commissioner of the DPD was not the least bit intimidating.

"The upper management was so interested in what we had to say. We felt very important and comfortable," the shopper said. "They can't don a disguise and go in and see how things are going for themselves. They were very keen to hear what we had come up with."

The DPD commissioner streamlined the department's telephone customer service process as a result of his secret shopping review. "Now," the shopper said, "they have a handbook for how they're supposed to deal with citizens who call in."

Huberman said the secret shopping program initially received a cool reception from agencies. "The leadership teams in the departments were leery of it at first. They were afraid it was going to be a 'gotcha.'"

But the mayor's office warmed agencies to the concept by rewarding and recognizing employees who received rave reviews from the secret shoppers. And agencies can't access other agencies' secret shopping results, which keeps agency leaders from feeling targeted for embarrassment, Huberman said.

The secret shopper said he shops agencies roughly once a week. He expressed that the job is one of his favorites as an intern.

"This was probably why we all wanted to intern here in the first place -- to help the city become the best it could be."

The secret shopper said his best experience was at the Animal Care and Control Center in southwest Chicago. He and another intern posed as residents inquiring about adopting a dog.

"Everyone was very friendly to us and very helpful," the shopper said. "We were able to take the dogs out and run with them a little bit. We probably would have adopted a dog, to be honest, if it wouldn't have blown our cover."

Huberman said agency leaders now view the program as a valuable insight into how their departments appear to outsiders, and they request to be secret shopped regularly.

"It has grown into the culture of how we operate city government."


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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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