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By Steve Kelman

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Better service, one smile at a time

While on the way to the United States from Australia, I got off my plane in Singapore and promptly repaired to the men's room. On leaving, I noticed a TV-size screen inviting me to rate the facilities by touching the screen – with five options, ranging from a super-smile to a super-frown. (No words were used.) 

I then went over to the airport information counter to ask where to meet my connecting flight. Again, next to each of the two customer services representatives was a screen with the five faces.

In times of tight budgets, some government employees may become more inclined to ask why any of their agency's resources are being spent measuring their performance rather than on performing. Performance measurement is important whether budgets are scant or generous because it can improve performance. Nonetheless, in tight budget times it becomes imperative to look for ways to develop lower-cost metrics.

This is why the smiley faces are such a great idea that we should really be looking to adopt. They are far easier to complete than long customer satisfaction surveys. They cost very little for the government. And, in addition to providing managers with good performance information, they are a visible statement to the public that government cares about how well it treats people in interactions with them.

There are many places where this technology could be used in the federal government, not to speak of local governments. Think of national parks, public restrooms in federal buildings, and offices (such as Social Security) where government employees interact person-to-person with people. Think of adaptations of this approach to quick ratings for features of government websites. And of course for passport control, the original application for which this was developed in Singapore.

By providing trend information, these ratings can be a warning signal to managers about deteriorating service, or a way to track the effect of service improvement initiatives. Where a number of employees are interacting with the public, the ratings, used judiciously, can provide comparisons among employees. I would be disinclined to use any but the worst ratings as grounds for punishment or dismissal, but I would like the idea of friendly competitions and of interviewing the best employees and the middling ones to see if there are differences between how they interact with customers that could provide the basis for changed training or standard operating procedures.

These smiley face ratings systems have become common in Asia. Why are we allowing ourselves to fall behind?

Posted on Aug 13, 2013 at 12:16 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Aug 16, 2013

What's the advantage of smile faces (or thumbs up) over a simple 1 - 5 numerical scale for the purposes you are talking about?

Wed, Aug 14, 2013

I love the idea and the innovation but let's be realistic. The feedback would be interesting but virtually useless since the current government personnel system makes it impossible to fire anyone. Individuals who received poor feedback would at best be 'shuffled' to another job and those who received good performance might get a plaque (heaven forbid monetary recognition). As former Secretary of Defense Gates said on his last day in office, my biggest challenge over my 40 year career has been the personnel system. "I couldn't fire them and I couldn't hire them!" Until we can establish accountability as well as reward superior performance, any cute performance measurement is just that -- 'cute'.

Wed, Aug 14, 2013 Al

I always thought heavily subdivided customer service questionnaires were set up that way to assign blame to a particular segment of a bureaucracy. On an unrelated note- I like the web site redesign. I give it a medium-smile face. I'm reserving the super-smile face for more innovative improvements.

Wed, Aug 14, 2013 clay wescott United States

Singapore is miles ahead of most other jurisdictions in common sense innovations like this.

Wed, Aug 14, 2013 seb Jilke

they have a similar system at heathrow, except that you can only choose bw 3 smileys

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