Questions seeking answers

USA Services e-gov initiative seeks streamlined answers to citizens' questions

Last week federal officials collected comments on proposed rules for agencies' handling of citizens' e-mailed questions. A final version is expected to be presented for formal adoption Sept. 30.

The rules are part of USA Services, one of the Bush administration's e-government initiatives, and are necessary because some agency employees simply do not answer citizen e-mail messages, said Daryl Covey, a co-chairman of an interagency committee of government help-desk managers that was asked to develop customer service guidelines.

"The most urgent improvement needed for e-mail communications is responding to e-mail," said Covey, who manages a hot line as team leader for field support at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Next-Generation Weather Radar operations center.

Citizens don't always know where to turn for government information and will often contact the wrong agency. New government offices are created, old ones are consolidated, and employees come and go -- all of which complicates matters further.

USA Services is a one-step process that the General Services Administration launched in 2003 to help people obtain government information from all 36 government agencies via telephone, e-mail or regular mail. The program also assists agencies in rerouting misdirected inquiries to the appropriate agencies.

Even before the new rules, USA Services had been helping agency employees respond to e-mail inquiries.

For example, under the program's misdirected e-mail initiative, an Agriculture Department employee who receives an e-mail query about small-business issues can forward the message to a "not Agriculture" mailbox, which GSA reviews. If the GSA employee knows the answer -- for example, the address of the Small Business Administration -- he or she answers the person directly. If the question is more intricate -- for example, about the interest on small-business loans -- the employee funnels the message to the appropriate office at the Small Business Administration and checks back to make sure someone answers it within two business days.

USA Services is asking for input on the proposed rules from a variety of associations with customer service experience, including the Industry Advisory Council, the Council for Excellence in Government and the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals.

Along with submitting draft recommendations, the interagency committee published benchmark standards that technology research firm Mitre. Experts derived the standards from industry practices, which they believe would also apply to government agencies.

Mitre found that 71 percent of organizations that acknowledge e-mail queries respond as promised. GSA officials said their statistics for each quarter of the past year show that USA Services has handled about 12,000 misdirected citizen queries, nearly 1,000 of which were sent as e-mail messages.

"Our mission is to make government more accessible," said M.J. Pizzella, who oversees USA Services as associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications. If a government employee wants to know that a citizen's question was answered, he or she can call the USA Services program office to trace the e-mail.

"Most agencies, they don't care," Pizzella said. "They're glad we took it off of them."

Teresa Grimes, public communications management officer at NASA headquarters, recently sent an e-mail message to agency employees announcing USA Services' misdirected e-mail project. She instructed employees to forward any queries outside NASA's purview to a new e-mail account, [email protected]

The USA Services program is accessible at, through the FirstGov Web site (, 800-FED-INFO and the Federal Citizen Information Center (

Rapid response

The following are the tenets of proposed governmentwide standards for e-mail responses to citizen inquiries.

  • Simple questions should be answered within two business days, at least 90 percent of the time.
  • Questions that require research or approval or involve multiple agencies should be answered within five business days, at least 90 percent of the time. The agency should inform customers within two business days of their inquiries' status and the estimated response time.
  • For questions involving personal data, policy or science issues, or time-consuming research, customers should receive an e-mail message within two business days citing the complexity of the inquiry and an estimated response time. The agency should send e-mail updates until it can provide a full response.

-- Aliya Sternstein


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