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By Steve Kelman

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An eye-opening visit to a citizen service center in China

steve kelman

On a recently completed trip to Shanghai, China, I had the opportunity to visit the new Administrative Citizen’s Service Center in Shanghai’s Xuhui district, opened last year. It is designed as a one-stop shop for citizens needing help with different kinds of questions and in filling out various forms needed for different business and personal activities.

Some 20 different agencies are represented in the center. Lots of the work handled involves services for businesses, such as registration and approvals for establishing a new business, and various approvals related to construction. The center also provides a number of citizen services, such as applications for passports and work permits, and various transactions related to health insurance. Many, though not all, of the forms can be completed online. The in-person services are designed for people -- often the older and less-educated -- with questions or who need in-person assistance actually filling out a form.

If you are thinking that China is still a developing country, or at best only a recently developed one, and if you think that citizen satisfaction might not be a high priority for the city’s leaders –- think again.

Start with the physical appearance of the building. Americans are likely to stereotype a government office in a developing country as shabby and seedy, with frayed chair coverings, imperfectly functioning heating, and ceiling fans. To be sure, Shanghai is far more developed than much of China, but nonetheless the look and feel of the center was not at all what I expected.

The customer service areas were not crowded, and had an open and airy feel, with lots of counter space. The different agencies were represented in separate, but contiguous, counter areas. The employees of the agencies with enforcement responsibilities wore uniforms similar to those of a police officer; the others wore regular street clothes. The areas behind the counters were also open, so customers could get something of a look “inside.”

Tech is important to the work of the center, both in terms of organizing the workflow and of providing performance information for management use.

When a customer comes into the center, they enter smartphone information, assuming they have one, and are assigned an appointment time (or times if they need to visit more than one bureau). They generally then go sit in a waiting area, and get a signal on their phone when they are only a customer or two from being served. Older customers, however, reportedly often prefer to stand in line near the counter where they will be served.

They have made some real progress on the perennial problem of people needing to fill out a form several times for several different agencies that need to deal with it, rather than being able to fill it out once and have the information go to all agencies that might need it. (This is often a problem in the U.S., but it even more of one in China, where frequently, especially for business-related approvals, several agencies need to sign off.) Traditionally, it has been thought the only way to deal with this would be for the various agencies to agree to a common form, something that turns out normally to be impossible because, except for the very simplest of forms, there will always be some differences in what agencies need.

The service center’s approach involves auto-populating data developed for one form onto other forms where the data is also needed. If the concurrence of five different offices is needed for some sort of approval, the system would inform the customer which forms must be filled out. The customer would then begin by filling out one bureau’s form. If the information in that form provided half the information needed to fill out another form, that information would automatically be uploaded onto the second form, and the customer then would need to fill out only those questions where the information had not already been transferred.

Developing the software to allow sharing of data from one agency to another was paid for by the city government, which obviously eased the transition. This has been proposed in the U.S. as well, such as for allowing data entered for Environmental Protection Agency to be transferred to the Department of Agriculture. However, this has until now foundered on both funding issues (who will pay for the transfer) as well as privacy concerns (at a minimum, in U.S. culture, the person submitting to EPA would need to agree their information could be transferred to USDA).

The Shanghai IT system also gathers data about employee behavior, and uses it both for performance evaluation of individual staffers and for workflow management purposes. City officials know the number of customers each representative has served and the average time per transaction. The individual employee’s score, compared with others, affects employee compensation. Patterns in the data are also used to influence the number of people assigned to different activities within a bureau.

The performance evaluation system's data can been reviewed a real-time system, which is updated live, so both the representative at the counter and the supervisor in the office can see the results. According to one staffer, “the peer pressure is the inner stimulation for the representative to perform their duty well.” Employees performing poorly in the system are also offered advice and/or paired up the better-performing employees, so the former can learn from the latter.

Of course, any system that measures how fast an employee works risks creating incentives for shoddy service. The center has done some things to address this as well, though officials accept that this is a work in progress. One is to assess customer satisfaction using a smiley face button at the point of service -- a feedback mechanism now common in Asia, and one that I have discussed in an earlier blog post.

One difference with other smiley face features I have seen is that the service center actually requires customers to select a rating before they leave the counter. Both in the few U.S. uses of smiley face, and at passport control locations with smiley face features I’ve seen in Asia, the feature is prominently shown by the point of service, but actually voting is fully voluntary.

The center’s smiley face ratings run really high, close to 100 percent. I expressed some worry that customers might think they needed to give a “smiley” rating or they wouldn’t get good service, but the staffer I spoke to noted that the rating was filled out after service was received, not before. Maybe Chinese feel very grateful for the improvements in service compared to what they had been used to in the past. Be this as it may, the universal satisfaction may make it more difficult to judge the quality of employee performance.

The organization also measures whether an employee has gotten supplementary follow-up information for a form to the employee’s supervisor before a deadline the center has established. But apparently this information is now collected informally by supervisors, and is not part of the IT performance evaluation system. When I asked about this, a staffer reacted that this would be a good idea for introduction later as the system is developed.

This visit reminded me of the observation of many foreigners coming to the U.S. that they are disappointed -- some use stronger words -- about the standards at many American big city airports compared to other major cities around the world. (Washington's Reagan National does decently well in such a comparison; Dulles not so much.) Indeed, in the first presidential debate, Donald Trump referred to the “third world” conditions at many leading U.S. airports.

We tend to assume that we are automatically better at what we do than countries that are poorer and less-developed than the United States. My experience at the Shanghai citizen service center demonstrated that we shouldn’t be making such assumptions.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 29, 2016 at 5:56 AM


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Reader comments

Thu, Dec 1, 2016

Actually, I think Estonia leads the way. 2,500 government services, including voting, can be accomplished on line...except for marriage and property purchase. The Chinese don't have the digital service market cornered.

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