A government-funded study of more than two dozen federal agencies has concluded that the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Postal Service, Housing and Urban Development's Office of Neighborhood and Consumer Affairs, and Civil Aeronautics Board are in the top rank when it comes to handling complaints and inquiries from tax-payer-consumers.
Resting at the bottom of the list are the Veterans Administrations's Department of Veterans Benefits, the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration and a number of Health, Education and Welfare offices.
These assessments are detailed in a new report by Technical Assistance Research Programs Inc. prepared under a $430,000 contract from the Office of Consumer Affairs in HEW and scheduled to be announced at a news conference today.
Ironically, the HEW consumer office itself is among the agencies given poor marks for some activities. It was given a "U" for unsatisfactory in logging telephone complaints, for example, because consumers' names are not listed, and that prevents attempts to follow through on serious complaints.
But the Office of Consumer Affairs was rated above average overall. In general, the report found that citizen's complaints (both letters and telephone calls) are not taken seriously at many agencies, there is no analysis of what the complaints indicate for policy decisions at a third of the offices surveyed and complaints often are misdirected by low-paid government clerks.
Representatives of Technical Assistance Research began studying federal agencies in 1974 and conducted on-site visits in 1975, 1976 and again this year.
According to the report, the most recent visits "have shown a substantial improvement in the performance of complaint-handling functions."
Whereas most agencies previously had treated consumer complaints as general public correspondence, about two-thirds now are handling most complaints in a satisfactory manner. Several agencies-including HUD, the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration-made "dramatic improvements in almost every area," the Washington researchers concluded.
Among specific agencies studied:
The @CAB has among the "two or three best complaint-handling mechanisms in the federal establishment," with analysis of consumer complaints providing the basis for agency orders and regulatory changes, and a "high level" of resolution of various complaints filed.
The U.S. Postal Service consumer advocate's office "has one of the highest-rated complaint-handling mechanisms." with a sophisticated statistical report system that permits identification of problems at the local as well as national level and full analysis of problems at postal headquarters here.
Of 15 categories to measure agency performance, the SEC was ranked "E" for excellent-the best ranking-in all but three, which were satisfactory. All telephone complaints are logged by name and a code number, all complaints receive responses by a certain date and SEC branch offices use the data to make consumer surveys. Quarterly and monthly reports go to the SEC chairman and top aides.
VA's department of veterans benefits was awarded eight "Us" and only one "E" because a substantial volume of mail is sent directly to held offices without any records kept, there is no uniform policy for logging telephone complaints, there is no periodic reporting of complaints and no central evaluation of what they mean.
"There appears to be serious confusion within the federal establishment between the concepts of citizen participation and consumer-complaint handling," the report also noted.
To end this confusion and improve complaint handling throughout the government, the report recommended that a single agency coordinate all such activities-either OCA in HEW or the White House Office of Consumer Affairs headed by Esther Peterson.
In addition, the report called for establishment standards to govern response to consumers' complaints, a practice of most private businesses. Regional and field offices, which often respond differently than the main office in Washington should be directed to give complaints a "high priority." the report concluded.