Public expects high-level online service from feds

Public expects high-level online service from feds

People require online government services to:

  • Give the right answer quickly and easily.

  • Consolidate information so it does not have to be repeated.

  • Keep personal information private.

  • Provide a live person to talk with.

  • Treat problems seriously.

    Source: Modalis Research Technologies Inc. survey for WorldCom Inc.

  • Survey shows that service is more important than price to consumers who conduct government business on the Internet

    The public has high expectations but low satisfaction with online government services, according to a recent survey of Internet users.

    Security of personal information is very important to users of government services, but many perceive the information is not being held carefully, according to the survey done for WorldCom Inc. by Modalis Research Technologies Inc. of San Francisco.

    A surprise finding was that many people rated customer service as more important than price in commercial dealings. For government agencies that cannot compete on price, service becomes an even higher priority, said Donna Victoria, Modalis' vice president of accounts.

    'I think the bar is set very high for the government,' Victoria said.

    This is not news to government officials.

    'One of the biggest challenges we face is to provide services in the way people want them,' Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle said.

    SSA maintains 1,300 field offices as well as a highly regarded toll-free telephone service, but it is moving toward more online offerings.

    One of the drivers is the approaching retirement of 76 million baby-boomers who expect such services. The agency must find cost-effective ways to handle the increased workload.

    High-scoring SSA

    In a University of Michigan study done last year on customer satisfaction, Social Security received a score of 84, one of the highest government ratings'two points higher than the agency received the year before and 13 points higher than the private sector's score.

    Yet despite expansion of electronic services, SSA still provides most services over the phone or in visits to field offices. Of nine electronic offerings announced by the agency in the past 18 months, seven are strictly informational. The other two are not fully automated.

    Since July of last year, Medicare beneficiaries have been able to apply for replacement cards through the SSA site at SSA forwards each electronic application to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, formerly the Health Care Financing Administration.

    Almost a year ago, SSA began accepting online filings for retirement benefits. Although applications arrive electronically, signed copies along with supporting documents still must be mailed or brought to a Social Security office. The service expanded in April to include applications for spousal benefits, still requiring paper backups.

    'Security is certainly an issue' in making services totally electronic, Hinkle said.

    He acknowledged that some of the pressure has been taken off SSA's service personnel by providing more public information through an e-mail newsletter, an online benefits planner and a large database of frequently asked questions.

    'We have anecdotal evidence that it is reducing office and telephone traffic, but it's hard to quantify,' Hinkle said.

    WorldCom released the survey results at the same time it announced availability of Web Center, a hosted customer contact service that integrates online with telephone communication.

    Voice, including Web-based voice over IP as well as telephone, merges in one queue with instant messaging, e-mail and fax contacts.

    Agents can access an extensive database of customer information to respond to queries.
    'Consumers are driving this trend,' WorldCom spokesperson Dodie Vance said.

    About the Author

    William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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