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By Steve Kelman

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Government should adopt instant feedback features

In my last blog post, about my visit to Beijing, I said I had read in a newspaper while there that the Beijing city government is proposing to introduce a touch screen inside taxi cars so customers can rate driver service in real time. Just before customers gets out of the cab, they press a button to indicate whether they were happy with the service. A similar button exists at the Singapore airport allowing people to rate the service of passport officials.

Modern distributed IT allows many such easy and quick point-of-service rating opportunities. Think, of course, about the customer satisfaction rating systems that both Amazon and eBay use. The Facebook "Like" function is another example. This approach is easy and done in real time, which is the key to its success. There are scads of opportunities to gather performance information for government through expanded use of this approach.

The U.S. government has been painfully slow to adopt such rating systems, and the idea meets with resistance in many quarters. Although Federal Acquisition Rules on simplified purchases under $150,000 specifically authorize use of simplified procedures -- including customer satisfaction surveys -- to gather past performance data for these purchases, the Defense Department has forbidden it. What a terrible waste of the benefits of contemporary technology. The government should make available overall statistics about the percentage of satisfied customers as indicated by these ratings.

This approach should also be applied, in the contracting arena, when payment vouchers a contractor sends for approval to a program official are approved. Have the official rate the work for which the invoice was submitted a simple five-point scale (“excellent” to “poor”). This would provide the contractor with ongoing, real-time performance feedback.

As the Beijing and Singapore examples suggest, this approach can apply to far more than contracting as a way to gather past performance information about contractors. It should be used more to allow quick and simple feedback on features of government websites (some do this already, although these features are sometimes more kludgy than necessary). We should scour government for opportunities to do this. It will provide better information about performance, spurring better performance. And it will provide an opportunity for citizen feedback that people unfortunately don't often associate with their encounters with government.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 18, 2011 Chun Li Beijing

It’s a good idea to introduce the instant feedback in service-delivering. However, I think the instant feedback mechanism must be highly linked with the reward and punishment mechanism. And moreover you also have to make the customers feel the effect of feedback mechanism; even more trust the feedback mechanism. For example, in Beijing’s banks, the customers are encouraged to press one button to rate the service. At the very beginning, most customers think it’s interesting and useful. But afterwards we gradually doubt whether it is just ornament button and not as useful as expect in improving the performance. So sometimes I don’t want to waste my time to press that button. Even I am afraid that’s dirty after many people press it.
By the way, I agree with Paul’s point that there are some areas proper for the instant feedback mechanism, but not all.

Fri, Mar 11, 2011 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

I like Steve's idea, but in theory, I do not think it practical. This goes deeper into the need to have real and proper accountability to ensure past performance issues are robust and indicative of true performance as indicated by the requirement, contract type, value, etc. Small businesses are primarily the ones performing on simplified purchases. How do they defend or get feedback on a thumbs down? All it takes is one to turn off a future or potential buyer. Further, it would take high sales velocity to give a potential buyer a high confidence level. One thumbs done is all it takes. Simplified acquisitions need to have a simplified checklist that gives a sense of performance, price, logistics and delivery, etc. Accountability for completing this step is vital for ensuring compliance with past performance reporting requirements. Yes, this is status quo, But a new system is not going to solve anything. There needs to be a re-evaluation of the process to force the performance reporting prior to contract closure and especially prior to final payment. This is where automation and standardization come into play.

Thu, Mar 10, 2011 Everyman

I like the March 8 comment: "contractors should be held accountable for their performance." I completely agree. Likewise, I think every Federal employee and program should be held accountable for their performances, including negligent oversight of contractors, but also when they are "performing" on their own. All nonperformers should be identified by an independent source and the names of all concerned publicized. Nonperformance consequences (equivalent of suspensions, debarment, prosecution, subpar performance reports) should be shared vertically among at least two levels of bagholders above the core nonperformer. This may not be what is taught at the Kennedy School, but it is what the citizens and taxpayers want (even those of us who are anything but Teapartiers).

Tue, Mar 8, 2011 Paul

Voting is a poor immediate feedback system even for the politicians, being both a blunt instrument (hard to show granularity when you like some policies and dislike others) and infrequent (only every 2, 4, or 6 years). However, for the vast majority of government functions which remain in place independent of elected officials, and are run by the civil service, better and quicker feedback systems would be useful.

Tue, Mar 8, 2011 Steve Kelman

Joe, thanks for your post. Two comments. First, yes of course the Amazon/Ebay system rates suppliers -- that's the purpose. Second, I'm a big fan of voting, but it doesn't provide specific enough information. My vote Republican or Democrat for president or congressmember doesn't give the Social Security Administration any information about whether people liked the service they got the last time they went to an office.

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