Civil service needs stories of everyday heroes

Steve Kelman suggests there are plenty of feds going above and beyond -- we simply need to put them in the spotlight.

elements of customer satisfaction

Many years ago, I read something about how a private-sector firm worked to create a service-oriented culture by sharing stories of employees who went above and beyond their job descriptions to help a customer. I don't recall the exact details, but I think the example given was a customer who needed something in a hurry, maybe a ticket or something (this was before everything was computerized) and the employee left work personally to bring it to him.

I thought of this, dredged out of half-forgotten memory, when I had an experience in Singapore last week (I'm now back in the United States) involving my passport. I had it in my back pocket one day to use at the Ministry of Manpower to get my temporary work permit for a few weeks of teaching at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School. Apparently it fell out of my pocket while I was having dinner with some Chinese students studying in Singapore, and one of them found it and brought it in to the local police station. The next morning, before I even knew the passport was gone, I had received an email from a professor saying the passport was found and available at the police station.

However, when I arrived at the police station early evening the next day to pick it up, I discovered that turned-in property was forwarded to a central police office if not picked up within a day. (Nobody had told me this.) It was 5:30 pm, and when the police station called the lost property office, it was just about to close. The office was in another part of Singapore, easily 30 minutes away by car. I was leaving the next afternoon, and mentioned my problem.

At this point the civil servant at the other end of the line said he was about to leave work and would drive my passport over to the local police station before going home.

I immediately thought of what I had read about in a private company so many years ago.

When he arrived, I got his name -- Mr. Hamdi. The next morning I wrote a letter describing my experience to the local Straits Times, which published it.

On returning back to the United States, I reflected on this in the context of Public Service Recognition Week. Private firms honor the everyday heroes who exemplify outstanding customer service. Do we do that often enough in government?

As I was preparing to write this blog, by amazing coincidence something similar happened to me. I arrived home early so I could go food shopping (no fresh produce after being away for two weeks) and, as I was walking up the driveway of my house, a car turned into the driveway. It turned out it was my mailman, Rob Rabello, whom I had never truly met before. He said that he had been holding an iPod Shuffle that he'd found near my mailbox and wondered whether it was mine. He had never seen me around the house when he was in the neighborhood, so he hadn't had a chance to ask.

This was indeed a Shuffle that had disappeared a while ago -- it must have fallen out of a pocket when I was picking up the mail.

Tomorrow I will call his supervisor to thank him for his kindness and consideration. Another everyday hero of a public servant, going beyond the job requirement to help a customer.

Meanwhile, next week is Public Service Recognition Week. The government is filled with everyday heroes who go above and beyond to serve. We need in each of our government organizations to be telling these stories about fellow-employees, for they are role models -- and their value inside the organization, to build the right culture, is at least as valuable as the external PR. Perhaps organizations should plan an activity next week to discover and share such stories as their way to honor public service.

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