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By Steve Kelman

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Civil service needs stories of everyday heroes

elements of customer satisfaction

Many years ago, I read something about how a private-sector firm worked to create a service-oriented culture by sharing stories of employees who went above and beyond their job descriptions to help a customer. I don't recall the exact details, but I think the example given was a customer who needed something in a hurry, maybe a ticket or something (this was before everything was computerized) and the employee left work personally to bring it to him.

I thought of this, dredged out of half-forgotten memory, when I had an experience in Singapore last week (I'm now back in the United States) involving my passport. I had it in my back pocket one day to use at the Ministry of Manpower to get my temporary work permit for a few weeks of teaching at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School. Apparently it fell out of my pocket while I was having dinner with some Chinese students studying in Singapore, and one of them found it and brought it in to the local police station. The next morning, before I even knew the passport was gone, I had received an email from a professor saying the passport was found and available at the police station.

However, when I arrived at the police station early evening the next day to pick it up, I discovered that turned-in property was forwarded to a central police office if not picked up within a day. (Nobody had told me this.) It was 5:30 pm, and when the police station called the lost property office, it was just about to close. The office was in another part of Singapore, easily 30 minutes away by car. I was leaving the next afternoon, and mentioned my problem.

At this point the civil servant at the other end of the line said he was about to leave work and would drive my passport over to the local police station before going home.

I immediately thought of what I had read about in a private company so many years ago.

When he arrived, I got his name -- Mr. Hamdi. The next morning I wrote a letter describing my experience to the local Straits Times, which published it.

On returning back to the United States, I reflected on this in the context of Public Service Recognition Week. Private firms honor the everyday heroes who exemplify outstanding customer service. Do we do that often enough in government?

As I was preparing to write this blog, by amazing coincidence something similar happened to me. I arrived home early so I could go food shopping (no fresh produce after being away for two weeks) and, as I was walking up the driveway of my house, a car turned into the driveway. It turned out it was my mailman, Rob Rabello, whom I had never truly met before. He said that he had been holding an iPod Shuffle that he'd found near my mailbox and wondered whether it was mine. He had never seen me around the house when he was in the neighborhood, so he hadn't had a chance to ask.

This was indeed a Shuffle that had disappeared a while ago -- it must have fallen out of a pocket when I was picking up the mail.

Tomorrow I will call his supervisor to thank him for his kindness and consideration. Another everyday hero of a public servant, going beyond the job requirement to help a customer.

Meanwhile, next week is Public Service Recognition Week. The government is filled with everyday heroes who go above and beyond to serve. We need in each of our government organizations to be telling these stories about fellow-employees, for they are role models -- and their value inside the organization, to build the right culture, is at least as valuable as the external PR. Perhaps organizations should plan an activity next week to discover and share such stories as their way to honor public service.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 29, 2014 at 8:35 AM

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Reader comments

Tue, May 6, 2014 Mel Ostrow

The fact that two feds are credited with doing the right thing with lost stuff suggests a rather low bar of being upstanding. Where should that bar be set for our well compensated civil servant colleagues?

Wed, Apr 30, 2014 15 year fed

I think most of us are too beaten down to comment. As it turns out I lost my wallet yesterday at my agency and a fellow fed from a different part of the agency found it and contacted me to pick it up. I never even got his name but it will not be forgotten and when I find out his name I will definitely let his management know that they have an everyday hero working for them.

Wed, Apr 30, 2014

Perhaps Professor Kelman should consider investing in pants with zippered pockets... :)

Wed, Apr 30, 2014 Bruce Waltuck

As a Federal investigator with the USDOL for 26 years, there were many occasions when my colleagues and I "did what we had to do" to help the working men and women of America. In cases involving housing safety and health for migrant farm workers, I personally participated in numerous raids to literally liberate people from the most wretched conditions. Sometimes we'd work from 8am to midnight, coordinating with local NGOs and faith-based groups, until every last worker had safe housing. Sadly, we all tend towards the well-known "negativity bias" in media. The fact that most government works just fine most of the time, is utterly overwhelmed by the relative handful of stories of actual "waste, fraud, and abuse." One government agency has an improper extravagant conference, and suddenly every agency is denied the opportunities for richer learning by on-site events. As the saying goes, "dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog is news." The bias is further fueled by pundits and politicians, who amplify only the parts of the story that resonate with their own agendas ("see? I told you so..."). Government, like any organization, always has the opportunity to be "even better tomorrow, than it is today" (my line for @The_IGI). We need to celebrate the good, the exceptional, and the failed who tried. Encourage the pursuit of excellence, and the exploration of the "emergent adjacent possible."

Tue, Apr 29, 2014

Almost 30 years ago I left a formal dress draped across the counter at the airline check-in counter in Philadelphia and never remembered it until we'd landed in Indianapolis on a bad-weather hold. 18 hours later, as our luggage arrived in Acapulco, there was a box with my name on it. The airline rep had packaged my dress and sent it on the flight as luggage! That was almost 30 years ago and I still remember my relief and appreciation (and yes, I wrote a letter to her supervisor). If stories like ours resonate years later, they can definitely serve as a positive HR tool in government or any business environment.

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