Although Americans are slightly less satisfied with the federal government than they were in 2001, customer satisfaction with e-government is still close behind that of private industry, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).
The ACSI score for government agencies, including those that are regulatory and those that administer benefits, fell to 70.2 in 2002 from a record high of 71.3 in 2001. Overall, the customer satisfaction score for the aggregate ACSI (which includes both public and private sectors) increased from 72 to 73.1 during the same period.
In its annual report on how satisfied Americans are with the services of the federal government, the ACSI reveals that big declines in satisfaction with Medicare, and with parts of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), account for most of the decline.
The satisfaction score for Medicare and Medicaid Services fell from 79 to 76, and the score for IRS corporate users dropped by 9% to an index of 60 (among small businesses). The IRS score from large and mid-size businesses dropped 6% to 52.
But while corporate users may be less satisfied with IRS services, satisfaction with IRS electronic filing of individual tax returns continues to be very high, the ACSI reports. The satisfaction score for individuals filing their taxes electronically is 78, compared with only 53 for those filing their taxes on paper.
"Electronic tax filing is simple and efficient," explained Claes Fornell, professor of business at the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research centre, which compiles and analyses the ACSI data.
According to Fornell, while the overall score for all individual tax filers is substantially lower than in 2001, it still represents a 22% improvement since 1999.
"No organisation, whether private or public, has shown this kind of improvement in such a short period of time. But user satisfaction with a tax collection agency is a double-edged sword. Although a passive agency will not be in the collective interest, it might well make for more satisfied tax filers on an individual basis." And yet, despite that, there is still no evidence that the recent cutbacks in IRS audits is the reason for rising satisfaction scores.
In addition to the IRS and Medicare, the US Mint, which sells numismatic and commemorative coins, also saw its ACSI score drop. But despite a decrease of more than 4% in its satisfaction score, the mint still registered the highest score of all the agencies included in the 2002 index.
With a score of 84, it was just above the Social Security Administration's 83 (for retirement benefits recipients) and the Veterans Health Administration's 81 (for in-patients at VA medical centres).
The most improved government agency in terms of customer satisfaction was the Federal Aviation Administration, whose score rose by nearly 9% from 59 to 64. While the airline industry is under significant security and financial strain, the FAA has still managed to provide a better service to commercial pilots.
Jack West, an ASCI production partner, explained, "The FAA's effort in clarifying policy standards and regulations is the main reason for the improvement in pilot satisfaction."
The ACSI now also includes scores for several government web sites, the average score for which is higher (74) than the overall ACSI score for private industry (73.1) or government (70.2).
Among the web sites, the Office on Women's Health ranked highest with a score of 80, followed by the Department of State's careers web site (76), and NASA's education web site (74).
"The high scores reinforce the idea that the web is a great medium for the government to communicate with the public," said Larry Freed, CEO for ForeSee Results, which measures online customer satisfaction, and forecasts customer behaviour trends. "The web is a medium that reduces communication costs, provides information in a consistent and high-quality manner, and offers the public a way to access government information and services anytime, anywhere."