Uh-oh, satisfaction with federal government services plummeted

The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews at Apple podcast Where Podcast One.

Citizen satisfaction with government services fell again last year. In fact, the satisfaction index has fallen to the lowest point since the measurement began in 1999. Here, on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with details, Director of Research for the US Customer Satisfaction Index, Forrest Morgeson.

Tom Temin: So what happened? Give us the numbers here, and also how does the government average compare to the non-government average?

Forrest Morgeson
Well, we have seen several years in a row a decline in citizen satisfaction with federal government services. It fell further in 2021, down 2.6% to a score of 63.4. And it’s on a scale of zero to 100 that we use. And that number, as you mentioned, is actually the lowest we’ve had since we started measuring in 1999.

Tom Temin: But it has been going down for several years now. So it’s hard to attribute that to any particular administration, I guess at this point. If it is a first full year of a different administration.

Forrest Morgeson: It’s correct. This seems to be “non-political” in the sense that it really reflects some kind of underlying dissatisfaction among consumers with the services they receive, regardless of who is responsible for those services, at least in theory.

Tom Temin: So 63.4 is the federal government average, and what is the national average for commercial entities?

Forrest Morgeson: Yes, the national average is currently around 75 for private sector services. So that’s substantially and in statistical terms, we would say very statistically significantly lower than the private sector average. Government, especially the federal government, has tended to lag significantly behind the private sector, but the gap has only widened here over the past four or five years.

Tom Temin: And let’s point out that one department, that of the Interior, exceeded the national level with a mark of 77% out of 100. And they are quite regularly up there too, aren’t they, Interior?

Forrest Morgeson: Yes, they tend to be our leader among federal departments that we measure and capture in our data. They’ve trended just about every year we have enough samples to include inside they tend to top. And we attribute this mainly to the type of service or the agency and the particular services it provides used by the citizens of the interior. And it really is the National Park Service. So most of the inland respondents we get are people who have been to a national park and enjoyed it. And given that it’s a relatively inexpensive vacation to amazing national parks in the United States, that makes sense. And when you compare that with whoever is down there, the Treasury Department, which is mostly made up of people who have known about the IRS, the huge gap between those two isn’t really surprising. I mean, nobody likes paying their taxes. And so there is some evidence in this kind of discovery.

Tom Temin: But yet, dissatisfaction with having to pay taxes is not the same as dissatisfaction with the service you get from the IRS. And the IRS suffered significant shortcomings for a variety of reasons, such as its ability to answer the phone on time and its website. Maybe it’s the complexity of the tax code. So it’s possible to separate out what you don’t like doing, for example, health and social services are up there at 71%. Below the national average, but well above the government average, and people can go there when they are sick. And yet they did well.

Forrest Morgeson: Yes, that’s absolutely true. I mean, there’s no easy answer to any of this in the sense that you’re just blaming the services or functions that citizens don’t like. Even the IRS has been able to differentiate its online tax filing process with the paper and pencil form filing process and provide quite significantly higher satisfaction through some channels compared to other channels. So it can be done. It’s just a matter of trying to strike the right balance and getting citizens to make the most of these new, more satisfying tools.

Tom Temin: We speak with Forrest Morgeson, he is director of research at the American Customer Satisfaction Index. And just if you could briefly review the methodology by which you get those scores.

Forrest Morgeson: Well, what we basically do is we go out and collect interviews throughout each calendar year. We therefore constantly collect data from the first week of January until December of each year. And we ask citizens, if they have experienced federal government service, to separate the postal service. So that doesn’t include the postal service, because otherwise everyone says, yes, I used the postal service, but everything else is fair game. If they say yes, that they’ve had an experience with a federal agency or program, we then interview them, ask them a series of questions about that experience, and ultimately how satisfied they were , the trust they have in the government, the trust they have in the government and a variety of other issues. And then we aggregate all these interviews. Ultimately, we take around 2,500 interviews and analyze them using a statistical model that allows us to get the most accurate estimates of how satisfied they are, how much they like different attributes of quality of service, etc. And that’s the methodology we use to produce those numbers and track them year after year.

Tom Temin: And also looking at the Republican versus Democrat responses, they’re nearly identical.

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon this year because what we’ve seen, and we’ve researched this, what we’ve seen is that there’s usually pretty constant change in administrations policies where the party in power is a bit happier with the government than the party out of power. And when power changes hands, the party that comes to power is more satisfied, the party that loses power is less satisfied, and so on. But not this year. I mean, this year we’ve seen declines not only across the federal government, across the federal government, but also across the two major political parties and membership in those political parties, both groups have fallen this year, and Democrats have actually fallen more than Republicans. . So there is a real dissatisfaction here that goes far beyond political preference and the party in power. And I think a lot of that has to do, or at least certainly a lot of it, with the strain on the federal government and the services they provide because of the pandemic.

Tom Temin: So you could say that President Biden’s recent executive order on customer experience is timely.

Forrest Morgeson: it’s well timed. And, you know, we did a little research on this, we looked into it. This is similar to other executive orders that have been issued over the past 25 or 30 years that have sought to improve the customer service experience of the federal government and its various programs. You know, it’ll be interesting to see if this one has a little more of an effect than some of the others. None seemed to really turn government into something akin to the private sector in terms of satisfaction, but that’s certainly the kind of move you’d like to see from government,

Tom Temin: And who on the business side is doing really well, as a benchmark?

Forrest Morgeson: There are a variety of companies that you probably wouldn’t be shocked to hear from, but the companies we tend to find a pretty strong relationship between companies’ satisfaction performance and their financial performance. Amazon has been a consistent leader year after year in customer satisfaction. Among fast food companies, a company like Chick-fil-A has consistently been at the top. We have airlines, Delta Air Lines has been the leader for a few years, which is kind of a turnaround. They were kind of the laggards, lower in the industry, you know, big old legacy providers, but they really became a service leader in their industry. Apple is doing very well, both in its retail stores and for its hardware, its iPhones are doing very well. So companies like that that are doing really well financially, you can usually trace that back to when they’re doing really well with their customers.

Tom Temin: And there is also the quality of what they deploy. And its speed too. There are certain technical features that make people happy with the service just to say?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, absolutely. We exist in a service environment that is changing very quickly. Many things are for the best. A lot of it, you know, depending on what client group you work with, is weird and new. But we get the ability to get service much faster and more seamlessly. We still have businesses that are stuck in there, well if you have a problem give us a call and we’ll come up with about 35 menus without answering your question. But most businesses, through the use of multiple channels and what we call omnichannel service delivery, have found a way to better serve customers using these multiple methods, automated chatbots, email, chat, windows, virtual assistants and that sort of thing that hopefully makes the service a little better.

Tom Temin: And do you think maybe the ongoing pandemic and the multiplicity of messaging that’s coming from the government, now two administrations are each sharing about a year and a half of pandemic response, and it’s confusing to the public, this could- there be a factor in general, do you think?

Forrest Morgeson: Yeah, I mean, we don’t measure that directly. But I think it’s hard not to see everything that’s happened over the last couple of years, how that’s not only stressed the federal government, but as you noted, the different messages we’re getting of the federal government, and not just across jurisdictions, but within individual jurisdictions, it’s confusing for Americans. This does not strengthen our confidence in the government, whatever political party you are from. It is difficult to consider all of this as something that has helped the government in the eyes of the citizens. And it’s just been a really traumatic time in general. So I think underlying the decline that we’ve seen, certainly over the last couple of years, in satisfaction with the federal government, you have to look at that, at least as an important influencing factor.

Ashley C. Reynolds