COMMENTARY—Public management

Customer service tips from developing countries

Other countries appear less constrained when developing new ideas for getting feedback

My older daughter, who is working in Australia, recently visited Shanghai for the first time. After her arrival, she e-mailed my wife and me about an experience she had going through Chinese passport control and customs. After completing entry checks and just before leaving the area, passengers can stop by a kiosk where they can report on their travel experience by pressing a smiley face or a frowning face.

What a cool idea! That approach invites feedback from customers while the experience is still fresh in their minds, which increases response rates — a problem with most customer satisfaction surveys — and the quality of responses — i.e. no memory bias. The data can provide fresh feedback to an agency about trends or even differences among employees, which allows managers to more effectively use the performance information for learning purposes. And it makes the customer feel valued.

I have witnessed other examples of government customer service innovations in developing countries recently.

While at a conference in Saudi Arabia (read my posts at "The Lectern" blog on, I came across two examples. While withdrawing money from an ATM, the machine also offered an option of paying parking fines and some government license fees. And in a keynote address at the conference, management guru Tom Peters talked warmly about a recent experience going through passport control in Singapore, where employees placed a bowl of candy at the counter. He said he would remember the thoughtfulness of that tiny gesture — his slide was titled “the one-cent candy” — for a long time.

Those are all examples of simple steps — particularly the Chinese and Singaporean ones — that governments could take to improve service. Shouldn’t the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency try them here? And the smiling/frowning faces could be useful for measuring the quality of many real-time services offered by government agencies, such as departments of motor vehicles — I would love to see those results — and local Social Security offices.

One interesting question is why countries often regarded as being far behind the United States in the overall quality of public-sector management, with the exception of Singapore, have developed innovations that we haven’t. One possibility is that they are designing procedures and approaches for the first time. Influenced by ideas of customer service in government that have spread there from the West and less encumbered by existing practices, they are less constrained when developing new ideas. We should take the opportunity to learn from them.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 17, 2009 M Reston

It sounds like the public sectors in those countries have learned more from the private sector in the US than our own public sector has learned. Is it just me or the US public sector is getting worse as it spends faster and grows bigger.

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