Customer Service in CED – The New Push to Improve What We Do

Published for Community and Economic Development (CED) on January 18, 2022.

CED officials prioritize good service. But are they undercutting their own efforts, increasing service availability on one hand but making it difficult to actively use the services on the other? A number of recent national reports, commentaries and even teaching case studies have raised the issue of connecting better service in citizen interactions as a way to increase trust in government. At the same time, others are raising the issue of high administrative burden we place on citizens when they try to access service, reducing public trust. Which is right? Both, of course.

Public trust in government is low – at all levels, in all areas – as seen in this striking graphic on measured levels of public trust in government from 1958 to 2021 by the Pew Charitable Trusts. CED is not an exception. A decade ago, scholar Christian Bjornskov looked globally at patterns of social trust, showing higher levels of trust were related to stronger economic growth. In fact, CED is based on developing public trust. The consulting giant Deloitte actively argues for building trust across all stakeholders, including government, as a way to increase overall business investment: “In the absence of trust, businesses may make only incremental gains to capacity through investments with short time horizons, such as software, rather than expanding capacity more substantially through investments with longer time horizons, such as structures.” The lesson applies to the local level as well. Without community support, there will be less economic development – less trust in promises to support current and/or new businesses, and less faith from community leaders in the commitment of local government to community development priorities.

Is the answer in better day-to-day CED service? The Federal Government thinks so. In response to the record low levels of public trust in government, last month the President signed an executive order, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. A number of these efforts are directly applicable to local government CED situations as well (see list below). An emphasis on customer service is not new, but it seems that there is renewed interest in how it can have important ripple effects on citizens’ views of government:

• Easing tax processes. The new executive order, for example, establishes the option for taxpayers to schedule a call-back when they seek assistance, rather than staying on hold or hanging up in frustration without solving the problem. Could this apply to CED assistance efforts?
• Easing citizen access to service/benefits after local disasters. The order targets duplication of required paperwork across agencies or government levels, and simplification of the reporting process, such as submitting photos of damage via phone.
• Connecting applying for higher ed financial aid to testing for qualification for public benefits, such as food aid, so that citizens can more easily and quickly access benefits for which they qualify.
• Connecting social benefit programs to reduce administrative burden across the board.
• Calling for simplification of the processes to receive business and/or farm assistance.
• Reducing the need for citizens to appear in person for various services, saving citizens and staff time and expense. In the order, for example, the President calls for elimination of in-person application for name changes with Social Security. Are there CED programs that currently require in-person actions that make more sense in today’s world to do on-line?

These changes show government trust in its citizens. To ensure these efforts don’t back-fire in a loss of trust, efforts should be applied in an equitable fashion. Do we make special efforts to improve services that benefit some in our communities, but impose processes that raise barriers for others? Are there lessons from process improvements in applying for a building permit that could transfer to applying for a social benefit? There are obviously differences in municipal, county and state processes, but the idea is to reduce burdens for the citizens who have to navigate all of these. Simplifying administrative processes benefits citizens. The evidence suggests that when government shows trust and service to citizens through process improvements, we can expect citizens to respond in the same way, by working with and appreciating government more, to everyone’s benefit.

Topics - Local and State Government