Obama wants new customer service plans from agencies

April 26, 2011

There’s online banking, self-checkout at grocery stores and self-check-in at airports.

But President Obama thinks that the federal government is mostly checked out when it comes to customer-friendly technology.

Senior administration officials said the president is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday requiring federal agencies to develop new, reliable online services that might one day replicate the success of the Internal Revenue Service’s electronic tax-filing program.

A decade ago, about 70 percent of Americans filed taxes through the mail and 30 percent filed online. Now, administration officials said, the numbers have flipped, saving the government millions of dollars in operational costs.

Officials said the executive order will also require agencies to draft plans designed to ensure faster customer service and reduce wasteful spending.

“The president believes this is an opportunity in an environment where we clearly have to make every taxpayer dollar work better and do more with less,” said Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. “We can deploy technology the way the private sector has to save money and, at the same time, improve service.”

Collectively, federal agencies operate about 24,000 Web sites, at least 3,000 informational telephone lines and 2,500 walk-in offices, where people can complete paperwork or meet with specialists.

But Vivek Kundra, the White House chief information officer, said Americans too often can’t get everything they need.

“You may come on a government Web site, get some information, but unfortunately, because of the way some of these sites are built, you’re forced to go to a walk-in center or wait on hold on these phone lines,” he said.

Agencies are already revamping Web sites, launching paperless payment systems for federal beneficiaries, developing smartphone applications and creating Facebook fan pages for departments.

For example, the Treasury Department will begin on Sunday requiring new applicants for federal benefits — including Social Security and Veterans Affairs payments — to receive their money via direct deposit. Current beneficiaries will receive paperless payments by 2013, a move the Treasury anticipates should save $1 billion in the next decade.

Yet “we are still behind,” Zients said, adding that the Social Security Administration only recently permitted applicants to schedule appointments online. Also until recently, Zients said, a Department of Veterans Affairs call center he visited in St. Louis stacked manila folders with benefits applications in old filing cabinets — prolonging the application process for up to 150 days.

Obama’s new orders are the result of more than a year’s worth of outreach to the business community, Zients said.

In a series of meetings, corporate leaders had told Zients and other top officials that agencies need clearly written customer service standards that are regularly updated based on customer feedback.

Though some federal agencies conduct customer service surveys, the government isn’t tracking its overall performance.

A Washington Post poll in October found that 73 percent of respondents who had interacted with a federal employee in the past year said the worker had done his job very or somewhat well.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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