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4/27/2011
04:48 PM
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Obama Orders Federal Agencies To Upgrade Customer Service

The Executive Order requires federal agencies to develop plans to leverage technology to improve their customer service capabilities.

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President Obama on Wednesday issued an Executive Order directing agencies to "redouble" efforts to leverage technology to increase productivity and service quality in a move that will redirect money saved on infrastructure spending toward public-facing websites and better productivity tools for government employees.

The order, titled "Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service," requires every agency to develop customer service plans within 180 days that adopt best practices from the private sector, develop service standards and track performance against them, benchmark themselves against the private sector, and establish a "signature" initiative for using technology to transform customer service.

"Just like large corporations, the government processes countless transactions, but too few agencies have modernized their customer interactions," federal chief performance officer Jeff Zients said Wednesday at a White House forum with top agency officials and private sector IT leaders. "As a result, too often costs are too high and customer service lags behind."

There are exceptions to this blanket statement, Zients said, and they show that improved customer service can lead to lower costs and more satisfied citizens. For example, IRS in 2001 processed 70% of its tax returns on paper at a cost of $3.66 per return, and this year will process 70% electronically at a cost of 17 cents per return, saving "hundreds of millions" of dollars and increasing satisfaction with the process.

The budget crunch has recently been a point of concern for public-facing websites, and sites like Data.gov and the federal IT Dashboard have been imperiled by budget cuts, as have efforts to overhaul Social Security's retirement benefits website. However, Zients said, the Executive Order should serve as a rejoinder that while "we need to make dollars count, we can't use decreasing budgets as an excuse to get less done."

While the government has fallen behind the private sector in measures like worker productivity, Zients joked that the government should have a "late mover advantage" because it would be able to leverage best practices already deeply rooted in the private sector and avoid the costs and inefficiencies inherent in the adoption of earlier stage technologies.

That said, some emergent technologies, such as cloud computing, will inevitably play a large part in the government's plans as agencies consolidate data centers and move more services into public and private clouds. For example, GSA in May plans to release a $2.5 billion procurement to consolidate 950,000 email inboxes across 100 email systems and 15 agencies into one cloud system, federal CIO Vivek Kundra said at the forum.

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