Customer-Driven Government

Jane Wiseman at DataSmart City Solutions: “Public trust in government is low — of the 43 industries tracked in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, only one ranks lower than the federal government in satisfaction levels.  Local government ranks a bit higher than the federal government, but for most of the public, that makes little difference. It’s time for government to change that perception by listening to its customers and improving service delivery.

What can the cup holder in your car teach government about customer engagement? A cup holder would be hard to live without — it keeps a latte from spilling and has room for keys and a phone. But the cup holder was not always such a multi-tasker. The first ones were shallow indentations in the plastic on the inside of the glove box. Accelerate and the drinks went flying. Did a brilliant automotive engineer decide that was a design flaw and fix it? No. It was only when Chrysler received more complaints about the cup holder than about anything else in their cars that they were forced to innovate. Don Clark, a DaimlerChrysler engineer known as the “Cup Holder King,” designed the first of the modern cup holders, debuting in the company’s 1984 minivans. The engineersthought they knew what their customers wanted (more powerful engines, better fuel economy, safety features) but it wasn’t until they listened to customers’ comments that they put in the cup holder. And sales took off.

Today, we’re awash in customer feedback, seemingly everywhere but government.  Over the past decade, customer feedback ratings for products and services have shown up everywhere — whether in a review on Yelp, a “like” on Facebook, or a Tweet about the virtues or shortcomings of a product or service.  Ratings help draw attention to poor quality and allow companies to address these gaps.  Many companies routinely follow up a customer interaction with a satisfaction survey.  This data drives improvement efforts aimed at keeping customers happy.  Some companies aggressively manage their online reviews, seeking to increase their NPS, or net promoter score.  Many people really like to provide feedback — there are 77 million reviews on Yelp to date, according to the company.  Imagine the power of that many reviews of government service.

If customer input can influence the automotive industry, and can help consumers make better decisions, what if we turned this energy toward government?  After all, the government is run “by the people” and “for the people” — what if citizens gave government real-time guidance on improving services?  And could leaders in government ask customers what they want, instead of presuming to know?  This paper explores these questions and suggests a way forward.


If I were a mayor, how would I begin harnessing customer feedback to improve service delivery?  I would build a foundation for improving core city operations (trash pickup, pothole fixing, etc.) by using the same three questions Kansas City uses for follow-up surveys to all who contact 311.  Upon that foundation I would layer additional outreach on a tactical, ad hoc basis.  I would experiment with the growing body of tools for engaging the public in shaping tactical decisions, such as how to allocate capital projects and where to locate bike share hubs.

To get an even deeper insight into the customer experience, I might copy what Somerville, MA has done with its Secret Resident program.  Trained volunteers assess the efficiency, courtesy, and ease of use of selected city departments.  The volunteers transact typical city services by phone or in person, and then document their customer experience.  They rate the agencies, and the 311 call center, and provide assessments that can help improve customer service.

By listening to and leveraging data on constituent calls for service, government can move from a culture of reaction to a proactive culture of listening and learning from the data provided by the public.  Engaging the public, and following through on the suggestions they give, can increase not only the quality of government service, but the faith of the public that government can listen and respond.

Every leader in government should commit to getting feedback from customers — it’s the only way to know how to increase their satisfaction with the services.  There is no more urgent time to improve the customer experience…(More)