New bill would require agencies to track how well they provide services to the public

This week, Nathan Abse interviewed Kristine Simmons, Partnership for Public Services's vice president for government relations, about the Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2019.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service is calling on the public and federal employees to support passage of the Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2019. This bill has bipartisan backing pending in Congress, and would permit the public to give far more effective feedback to the federal agencies that serve them. Over the past several decades, laws—notably the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980—have eased the burden of excessive documentation borne by the public and private business in dealing with federal agencies. But such older laws—and regulations—also include stringent provisions to protect private and proprietary information. In pursuit of that laudable goal, unfortunately these provisions impede gathering and usage of good, solid feedback on government services—preventing discovery of which agencies and services are best regarded, and which need improvement. Now, with reasonable prospects for passage of the FACE Act, these impediments might soon be history—surveys could soon be developed by agencies, which would be required to collect and publish customer feedback. This week, Nathan Abse interviewed Kristine Simmons, Partnership for Public Services's vice president for government relations, about the bill.

Q&A with Kristine Simmons

Currently, as I understand things, the Paperwork Reduction Act and other laws prevent agencies from getting good feedback being—but the new Federal Agency Customer Experience Act would fix this issue?

Simmons: Yes—let’s back up a little bit, and look at the recent bill and what came before it. The Federal Agency Customer Experience Act—S. 1275, and passed already by the Senate—is bipartisan legislation that is intended to promote the ability of agencies to collect and use customer service feedback. We at PPS got interested in this some time back—we had done a report looking at the ways agencies collect and use customer service feedback, and, yes, we were surprised to learn how frequently the Paperwork Reduction Act was cited as an impediment in this regard.

How exactly did the older law get in the way of agencies that of course need useful feedback?

Simmons: Well, the Paperwork Reduction Act is decades-old—and in the interest of privacy rights, it requires agencies to go through a fairly lengthy process to get approval for anything that more than nine members of the public might receive as a solicitation for information. This restriction has turned out to be a barrier to agencies who—though they want to protect privacy for those who use their services—also need and are trying to improve customer service. The problem here wasn’t intended by Congress when they passed the older law, I think—but that’s how things turned out.

How might this bill change the situation—and, as I understand it, the key is that agencies would get an exception if what they sought was “voluntary feedback,” right?  

Simmons: Yes. This new legislation would allow agencies to bypass the lengthy process I described. They instead could solicit information, if that information is for purposes of gaining voluntary feedback, yes. Additionally, under the bill, agencies would only be permitted to ask a small number of questions. And, as much as possible, those questions have to be tied to [interactions with the agency.] Furthermore, it has to be made clear in the survey that giving feedback is voluntary—and that people will not be treated any differently by the agency if they choose not to respond.

Different types of “feedback” would be in play here, right? Cosponsors of the bill mentioned  feedback on service satisfaction, timeliness, and professionalism, for example?

Simmons: That’s all about the formats and the platforms. As you know, the American people engage with agencies in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s in person, and sometimes it’s on the phone. The means of collecting feedback might differ, depending on the nature of the interaction. Now, the legislation does require that there would be a standard set of questions, across agencies, that would get at some of the issues you just raised. In other words, the legislation requires that the director of Office of Management and Budget develop a set of questions that could be used by all agencies. These questions would look at the overall satisfaction, of the individual about the service they received, and the extent to which they accomplished their task. You need to know both because, for example, you could get the phone answered quickly but if you don’t get good help from the agency, the quick wait time is not very useful, is it? Was the agency able to accomplish the task? Did they do it in a timely way? Was the person being served treated with respect? That sort of thing—and anything else the director of the OMB decides is appropriate.

But beyond a standard set of questions, under the bill could each agency also ask its own tailored questions?

Simmons: Yes. In addition to the standard questions, agencies could add some more specifics—something specific to the unique needs for data that a certain agency might have. The new law wouldn’t preclude an agency from asking a few more questions. But it must hold itself to 10 questions, total, according to the legislation as it stands now.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: How might the new “feedback” gained help agencies to get better at what they do?

Simmons: We spend trillions of dollars, over the years, in government—trying to service the public. And that money would be much better spent if we had more knowledge of how the people perceive the services that are provided.

Can you go deeper on privacy concerns, under existing laws—and how they might continue to add complexity to the situation?

Simmons: Yes. There are a number of protections in law and regulation for people’s privacy. The sponsors of this bill were very mindful of these when they were drafting it. They want to ensure that a new law would provide only for voluntary feedback—and that no one would be obligated to reveal their identity or do anything that compromises their privacy. As I said, there is language in there to ensure enough protection—anonymity. Part of the reason to have anonymity to the extent possible is to protect people who are concerned on that front. But the overall concern here is that if someone is giving feedback, the agencies really want to address any problems that are expressed in that feedback. At the end of the day, we want government to be solving the problems of the people that they serve. So, we need to let people say I did not get the support I needed on the helpline. They could do this anonymously. But you want also to let people identify themselves, if desired—to let someone follow up with them, if need be. We are trying to get all this right, in this legislation.

Can you give our readers a sense of where the legislation fits, historically speaking?

Simmons: Sure. The older law we discussed—the Paperwork Reduction Act—is a creature of the times in which it was created. It comes from back when we didn’t even have the internet—and when the American people engaged with government mostly in paper form, by mail. There is relatively little of that now. So, the new law is also a way to modernize, to go beyond the Paperwork Reduction Act and improve the way people engage with their government.

How did PPS come to get involved in pushing for better feedback from the public?

Simmons: The problems with existing law came to the attention of the Partnership for Public Service when we were doing a report on customer experience, and that’s when we identified these issues. They have been long simmering. There have been previous efforts to manage them better, but our research showed that these processes are not as simple as previously thought—and so there is a lot of hope being put into this new legislation.

Can you give us your thoughts on final passage in the House, and signing?

We’ve been very encouraged by the bipartisan support evident for the legislation—support that it’s received in both the Senate and the House. In the Senate it was approved by unanimous consent. We have our eyes on the House, on passage in the House.

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