Auditors say help desks lack metrics

Federal auditors recently highlighted a lack of governmentwide guidance on agency customer service centers, including standards for accuracy, although federal policy on disseminating information to the public specifically emphasizes accuracy.

In addition, customer service centers, most of which are contractor-operated, do not specify accuracy as a contract performance metric or as a key focus for oversight. Federal agencies are increasingly relying on contact centers — help desks handling inquiries via channels such as telephone, Web pages, e-mail and postal mail — to communicate with the public.

A Government Accountability Office report released in February found that although some agencies have taken steps to ensure that their contractor-operated contact centers address accuracy, others do not place the same priority on accuracy as they do on other objectives, such as timeliness.

Between November 2005 and February of this year, auditors studied six centers that handle more than 1 million inquiries for information that affects people's finances, health or safety.

Only four of the six agencies evaluated include accuracy as a performance metric in their contracts.

The Office of Management and Budget told GAO officials it does not plan to issue any governmentwide guidance because the operation of contact centers is not an area of concern.

GAO's evaluation of the Defense Department revealed the most significant problems in ensuring the accuracy of information provided to the public. A DOD center for medical benefit coverage, enrollments and claims processing – the TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) North region – does not conduct annual reviews of the knowledge database used by customer service representatives to respond to inquiries.

TMA tells the contractor to develop information based on material TMA provides, but it does not review the information that the contractor uses to respond to public inquires. DOD officials told auditors that TMA relies on the expertise and skills of its contractor to provide appropriate services.

Although almost all the agencies that GAO reviewed monitor the contractors' e-mails and calls on a weekly basis to assess the accuracy of information provided to the public, TMA monitors calls only on an ad hoc basis when DOD officials visit the contact center.

Governmentwide, agency officials are confused about which reporting code to use for entering contact center information into the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), a central database in which agencies enter procurement data.

Each of the agencies reviewed chose a different reporting code for its contact center. None of the agencies used the code that OMB auditors said is appropriate for contact center services. One reason is that some agencies’ officials think the code applies only to telephone services, not Web sites, e-mails, faxes and other forms of communication.

Last fall, an interagency committee of government help-desk managers proposed customer service guidelines to resolve some of those issues. The Citizen Service Levels Interagency Committee submitted 37 proposed standards for operating contact centers to OMB in September, including four standards specifically related to ensuring accuracy.

OMB has not implemented any of the recommendations, according to the GAO report.

“In October 2005, OMB officials stated that they had reviewed the committee’s report but did not plan to issue any governmentwide guidance based on the committee’s recommended guidelines at this time, because OMB has not identified the operation of contact centers as an area of concern,” the report states.

GAO officials said OMB should:

  • Build on efforts begun by the GSA-sponsored interagency committee, work with agencies to develop a mechanism for sharing performance metrics and oversight practices for contact centers. Continued efforts should stress that providing accurate information to the public needs to be a major factor in the oversight of federal contact centers.

  • Take steps to ensure consistent reporting on contact centers by developing an industry category or specific code definition in NAICS that encompasses all the services provided by contact centers or by providing further instruction to agencies regarding the appropriate NAICS code to use for contact centers.

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