The District government's quality assurance testing program, which sends "secret shoppers" to contact city agencies and grade the response they get, is expanding to include a wider range of tests and more input from residents or other users of municipal services.
The program began four years ago, a result of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's campaign pledge to make the city government more efficient, polite, accurate and responsive. Ratings are published quarterly based on the quality of each agency's response to testers' phone calls, as well as their answers to voice mail, e-mail and written correspondence. Scores are posted on the city's Web site. And the mayor pays attention to them. He regularly "brings up the ratings during staff meetings," said Sharon Gang, his spokeswoman.
The testers, who are short-term contract employees, rate the agencies based on detailed standards. A phone call gets the lowest rating if it is not answered within three rings, if the person answering chews gum or carries on another conversation, or if the caller is not thanked. A top rating is earned if the call is answered by someone who sounds cheerful and friendly, who has correct information, and who "genuinely makes you feel good about your interaction," among other things.
The program, which costs $225,000 a year, now rates 50 agencies that report to the mayor, from the Office on Aging, which has ranked high from the beginning, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which ranks among the lowest. It does not include the school system, Housing Authority, Superior Court or D.C. Water and Sewer Authority because they are not under direct mayoral control.
Under the expansion announced last week, the program will add more face-to-face interactions, sending testers to walk into city offices and ask for help. Some walk-in and telephone testers will seek assistance in Spanish, Amharic, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese, to assess how well an agency meets its requirements to serve people who do not speak English.
For agencies that score well in responding to telephone inquiries during business hours, testers will switch more of their calls to after-hours voice mail to test response time there. Program officials also plan to solicit more response from the public, both by expanding their surveys of customers leaving city agencies after doing business there and by encouraging people to call or e-mail ratings of their experiences.
Program officials say that overall scores have improved steadily in the past four years, with stubborn exceptions. On the 1-to-5 rating scale used for telephone tests, the average score used to be 1.5, said Yvonne McManus, chief of staff for the customer service program. In the latest ratings, for the first three months of 2005, the average was 4.81.
"Our targets are really high now," she said. "Actual performance increases every time."
Out in the city's neighborhoods, not everyone agrees. "You used to be able to talk to a warm body at most of those numbers," said Lillian Huff, president of the Lamond Riggs Civic Association in upper Northeast, who has lived in the city since 1950. Too often, she said, "you are talking to a machine. It's a growing problem. I hear about it in our meetings."
Frequently, Huff said, people do not get answers when they leave voice mail messages. The response is worst, she said, in widely used agencies such as the Department of Human Services and the Department of Employment Services. The police response "has improved some," but not enough, she said. Huff did give high marks to the Office on Aging, though. Some of the same agencies regularly rank near the bottom, especially on phone call response, among them the Office of Tax and Revenue, as well as the motor vehicle, police and employment services departments. McManus said some poor performance stems from too much business and not enough staff members. She said the tax office had raised its ratings last year, but its scores dropped during tax season when it was overwhelmed by phone calls.
McManus said some agencies, such as the Human Services Department, have boosted their ratings by putting an enthusiastic manager in charge of customer service.
At the Department of Motor Vehicles, spokeswoman Janis D. Hazel said her agency scores well in responding promptly to written and electronic mail but gets failing marks because it has too few staffers to respond to a high volume of phone calls. She said the agency is adding staffers and taking other steps, with the goal of bringing down response time so callers can reach an operator in 2.5 minutes.
Answering phone calls quickly and politely is good, but not good enough for some residents.
"They do answer the phone," said Constance Woody, president of the Benning Ridge Civic Association in Southeast. "They do answer politely. But as far as getting anything accomplished, nil. Everyone out in this neighborhood would tell you the same thing."