Can Government Deliver Service Excellence?

Last Updated Sep 5, 2008 10:40 AM EDT

OK, so forget excellent service, as the headline suggests. Do we even get good service from our federal government?

Writing during the Republican National Convention, Harvard Business School professor Francis Frei, an expert on customer service, believes this issue is one that could offer Republicans an edge over Democrats.

"I've heard little from either candidate about the hard choices or difficult work involved in fixing the models behind some basic government services, including infrastructure and emergency management," Frei writes. "The Republicans have a real opportunity here to build on their brand as the hardworking, common-sense "Service" party, and deliver a workable plan for shoring up America's vital infrastructure."
When companies plan to deliver excellent service, they start with a service model that sets expectations, goals, identifies resources, and considers trade-offs. Where could the presidential candidates start? Says Frei: "Some well-chosen prose about exactly how the next administration would improve the federal government's ability to provide core services would help to address the deep skepticism of many Americans."

Government seems ruthlessly efficient when it comes to what it demands from citizens. It never fails to successfully coordinate the hugely complex job of collecting income taxes from a hundred million Americans every April 15. It goes off like clockwork! And has your local community ever forgot to send you a property tax bill? If only we could depend on pothole repairs as regularly as we are asked to pay for them.

Frei's post begs the question: Just what could an administration do to improve what really is its raison d'être, namely to serve the people. Does government need a service czar? Are there minimum standards of service that all government agencies should meet?

Related Reading: Does Democracy Need a Marketing Manager (HBS Working Knowledge)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.