Is Great Customer Service Possible in Government? (part 1)


I recently had the pleasure of listening to the Senior Manger of People Development over at Southwest Airlines talk about leadership and customer service. That got me thinking about the culture of Southwest compared to the culture of government – the industry where I work.

umm…No. Not the well-funded guys

Hold on, hold on…I know what you’re thinking, but I wanted to try and identify WHY it’s not even close.  In my reading, I ran across this white paper by Jose Luis Romero titled Southwest Airlines Employee Motivation.  He lists 7 key elements for success in building a successful company.

For sake of full disclosure, I’ve only worked in the government for less than a year but thanks to my job as leadership/management trainer, I’ve learned more in my short time than I could have ever imagined…I thought I had it all figured out.

I thought it might be helpful to break down each of these 7 elements and explain how they play out in the government. For today, let’s take the first one.

1. Strong Set of Values. The idea here is that values drive behavior.  A company needs to have values, just like individuals have values, and that will drive desired behavior. Values aren’t just preached, they’re lived by everyone…ESPECIALLY the top management.

Southwest Values: In this order, exceed expectations for 1.Employees 2.Customers 3.Stockholders.

Government Values: 1. “There’s nothing I can do” 2. “They” don’t care 3. Just follow the rules.

See the difference? For one, let me go out on a limb here and guess that the governments don’t actually print this up on posters as their mission; usually, it says something like “To serve…blah, blah, blah.” What I’ve listed are the main attitudes I run into with employees. Let’s break it down:

“There’s nothing I can do” – The public is so distrusting of government, we elect new leaders to Congress to “clean things up.” Most people don’t realize the way Congress tries to do this is by enacting new legislation. Which means more oversight – which means more steps in the process – which means the employee has virtually no flexibility to “do the right thing.”

How many times have you thought “it’s so simple, just do X” but the employee says they can’t. Well, they’re right. There is most likely a law restricting whatever it is. Example: to buy  a computer available online for $600, it MUST be bought from the “contract” winner who sells it for $1,200 b/c they were low bidder in the contract process specifically spelled out by Congress to “eliminate wasteful spending.”

“They don’t care” – The “they” here is both you and I as the public, and the upper level officials who typically want to get re-elected. Joe Public doesn’t care because he thinks gov’t employees are just lazy and don’t care about doing a good job. We know this is a generic sentiment about government employees b/c usually when Joe actually meets one, he always asks “how do you deal with all those idiots working down there.”

Officials don’t care because they know that although people gripe about poor customer service and inefficiency in government, they’re not going to change their vote unless service is interrupted to the point that it affects them directly.  We expect slow responses (except from police/fire) and even though we’ll complain about it, we’ll usually elect/re-elect someone that keeps the status quo. Don’t believe it? Check the incumbent re-election percentages out.

Just follow the rules – Going back to legislative handcuffs, there is virtually no way to reward high performing employees any differently than low performing employees.  Typically raises, if they are issued, are given based on time rather than performance. No, that’s not the policy, but it’s the practice because there are 97 other laws put into place for employees to sue b/c they got the small piece of cake. Much more so than in the private sector.

Also, it’s very difficult to get fired as a government employee. The one area that will get you fired is violating a policy or procedure. In other industries, successful companies encourage problem solving. In government, if you violate policies that have been put in place to accommodate legislation, you’ll get fired.

All 3 lead to continuation of the status quo.

What do you think?  Can you see the paradox?  How can we get a great, strong set of values in government to live by? I’d love to hear it…

Is great customer service possible in government?


3 thoughts on “Is Great Customer Service Possible in Government? (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Is Great Customer Service Possible in Government? (part 2) | The Thinking Leader

  2. Pingback: Is Great Customer Service Possible in Government? (part 4) | The Thinking Leader

  3. Pingback: Is Great Customer Service Possible in Government? (part 7) | The Thinking Leader

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