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August 27, 2004

A Tool Is a Tool Is a Tool, Continued

When citizens become customers

By Betsey Culp

It’s a new Great Awakening. Like pop-up ads on a computer monitor, preachers are appearing everywhere, fluttering over the footprints of Jonathan Edwards and George Tennent, proclaiming the advent of Salvation through Better Practices. Central to the theology of revivalists like David Osborne and disciples such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Gavin Newsom is the Doctrine of Customer Service.

Their new scripture, already being written, reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Customer Service Plan for the United States of America.

A sacred light shone forth from the High of Highs, the Office of the President of the United States, in September 1993:

Putting people first means ensuring that the Federal Government provides the highest quality service possible to the American people. Public officials must embark upon a revolution within the Federal Government to change the way it does business. This will require continual reform of the executive branch’s management practices and operations to provide service to the public that matches or exceeds the best service available in the private sector.

NOW, THEREFORE, to establish and implement customer service standards to guide the operations of the executive branch, and by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, it is hereby ordered:

Section 1. Customer Service Standards. In order to carry out the principles of the National Performance Review, the Federal Government must be customer-driven…..

Reflected in a thousand interfacing mirror images, the beacon of hope spanned the continent. In the City and County of San Francisco it appeared first in the form of a change to the Charter:

Sec. 16.120.  Customer Service Plan

Each department of the City and County shall adopt an annual Customer Service Plan, in a format to be determined by the Board of Supervisors by ordinance. The Board may excuse a department from particular requirements of the ordinance where compliance would be inappropriate or impractical. Each department shall file its Customer Service Plan with the Board of Supervisors no later than February 1st of each year, along with a report on how the department met the previous year’s Plan, if any. (Added November 1998)

From there, its rays rippled out to every part of the city’s political culture, including the Book of Newsom, a collection of policy papers that served as campaign literature in the November 2003 race for mayor:

311: Improved Customer Service and Public Safety for San Francisco

San Franciscans should expect city government to respond quickly and effectively to their needs. They have a right to outstanding customer service that allows them to easily access city services, track the city’s progress on their requests, and get their needs met quickly. Unfortunately, in the year 2003 San Francisco lags well behind other cities in providing easy access to city government through a single point of contact: a 311 phone number for non-emergency city services….

 How 311 Will Work in San Francisco

 When fully operational, San Francisco’s 311 call center will be staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Like 911 or 411, dialing 311 will connect citizens to a call center staffed with trained call takers who have access to translation services. 311 call takers will be more than just operators – they will function as customer service representatives for all city departments.

 Now, not even Sacramento’s marbled halls remain in darkness. Building on the words of previous, lesser-known prophets, the present governor revealed in the Gospel According to Schwarzenegger that

WHEREAS, the people of California have spoken and made clear their desire for a government that is a better provider of services, more responsive and more accountable;…

1. There shall be created the California Performance Review to conduct a focused examination of California state government….

2. This year, the Performance Review will examine … (5) Customer Service.


Balderdash! Blasphemy! There’s no “revolution” in performance reviews, no “salvation” in Customer Service Standards. They are simply tools, capable of doing good or evil, depending on who’s using them. The people’s future requires that they are used well.

While the federal executive order of 1993 may have lit the first official torch, the distance from Clinton’s government devoted to “putting people first” to Schwarzenegger’s government as a “better provider of services” is vast. It marks a giant leap, not of faith but of philosophy. The transformation of people-as-citizens into people-as-customers is not merely semantic. It destroys the most basic concept upon which the United States was founded, that of “we the people.”

Consider the following scenario:

[A telephone rings.]

San Francisco 311 Call Center. This is Randy. For quality and training purposes, this conversation may be monitored and recorded. How may I provide you with excellent customer service today?

Good morning, Randy. You mean I reached a real person and not a recording! That’s already a sign of excellent customer service. I’m blown away. What’s the next step?

It’s really very simple. All of us 311 operators are connected to a giant CitiStat database, so that we can track the progress of your case. Mayor Newsom says that CitiStat is “an innovative and highly successful performance management strategy” — it’s part of a new, more competitive approach to city services.  One of the things it does is record our success and failure rate. If I don’t serve your needs, I can be demoted or moved to a different office. You may have heard of the city’s other new piece of technology, CompStat, which has revolutionized the way the police do their job. Imagine what a difference it makes in law enforcement if an officer knows that he might be moved elsewhere if the crime rate in his district doesn’t drop.

What a wonderful idea — sharing the burden! I imagine a number of cops in high crime areas like Hunters Point or the Excelsior look forward to the day when they will exchange their front-line positions for cushier assignments in Pacific Heights.

I don’t think…How may I help you today? You’ll forgive me if I go a little slowly, but I’m new at this, so I may need to consult the manual as we go along. Let me see… the first thing I have to do is determine what kind of customer you are. Are you a citizen?

Of course, I am, but what difference does that make?

Oh, we’re supposed to use different strategies, depending on whether the customer is a citizen or a business or an employee or another government. If you’re a citizen, we might find what you need through the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.  The manual says it is “dedicated to helping the citizens of the City & County of San Francisco receive the highest levels of service possible from all areas of City government.” If you like, you can directly contact one of the district liaisons. They “work to ensure that the Mayor's Office is involved with helping improve the quality of life for all San Francisco residents.” Let’s see…where do you live?

In the Excelsior, but…

In the Excelsior. Ummm… oh yes, that’s District 11. Your MONS liaison is Kriztina Palone. But I should warn you that she’s also the liaison to District 10, so she may be kind of busy these days. I suppose you could also talk to your district supervisor. But let me try to help you first. Can’t let those performance ratings fall, especially during my first week. What kind of information do you require?

Well, I live in the Excelsior, but I’m calling on behalf of people who live in Potrero and SOMA as well, in fact people who live all over the city. We’re all the owners of small environmental businesses — I market organic produce, one guy develops biologically based auto-repair equipment, another one is a green-building consultant.

Oh… so you’re not really citizens; you’re businesses. I’d better pull up the business-customer strategy. Do you know, I read on the Department of Labor website recently that the whole concept of customer service is changing? We used to put together something called a “value chain” to help you — they described it as G2C, or government to customer. Isn’t that clever? But the Internet has made everything much more complicated, so now we’re using a “value network.” That’s C2B2G2B2C — citizen to business to government to business to citizen. Exactly like what you just said! You’re a citizen, but you’re part of a business, and you’ve come to the government for help. I used to laugh at those MBA types, but it turns out again and again that they know what they’re talking about. Now, at this point, according to the Department of Labor people, I’m supposed to dialogue with the customer on needs and priorities. So what is it that you need?

Some information, for starters. The Board of Supervisors just passed a law exempting biotech companies from the city’s payroll tax, and we want to know if the law applies to our businesses. None of us does any gene-splicing in a laboratory, but we all are involved in cutting-edge biological science, which seems to be exactly the kind of thing the city is trying to promote by the ordinance.

Can you hold on for just a minute, while I retrieve the law you’re referring to?


Thank you for waiting. I found it. Here’s what it says:

“Biotechnology business” means conducting biotechnological research and experimental development, and operating laboratories for biotechnological research and experimental development, using recombinant DNA, cell fusion, and bioprocessing techniques, as well as the application thereof to the development of diagnostic products and/or devices to improve human health, animal health, and agriculture.

That’s not much help, is it? Sounds like this is a job for the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector — in Room 140, City Hall, where you go to file your tax registration certificate.

OK, I’ll check with them. Assuming they’re going to say we’re not genuine biotech businesses, let me ask you another question. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. The city has been stumbling along for years economically, and as citizens of San Francisco and as entrepreneurs we feel we have a responsibility to contribute to its well-being. We employ local workers, which keeps money from leaving the city and — as the district attorney has repeatedly argued — also helps to lower the crime rate. We’re good citizens. We want to be good citizens. But it’s not easy, particularly when some groups get singled out for special privileges. How can the city government make it easier for us to be good citizens?

Hello? Randy?

I’m sorry, while you were speaking, I was doing a search for “citizen” in the database.

We offer a variety of ways for citizens to participate in the government of San Francisco. They can sit on any of a number of advisory boards and provide  public comment at meetings. They can ask the Office of Citizen Complaints  investigate suspected police misconduct. And they can come down to City Hall and actually do some work — most departments welcome volunteers.

My training program stressed that we still have a long way to go. That’s why Mayor Newsom has instituted a program called Project Connect, where volunteers fan out through select neighborhoods, asking residents what they need. He has promised to develop “a comprehensive plan that will set neighborhood priorities and customize service delivery in targeted communities.” In other word, to work out ways that we can provide better customer service. Maybe that’s what you have in mind. You’ll need to be patient, because it will take time. But remember, we work for you.

You don’t work for me. I didn’t hire you, and I can’t fire you. You don’t work for me. That suggests I’m above you in some sort of hierarchy.

Nor do you deliver services to me, like some bountiful potentate. That suggests it’s you who’s above me.

And don’t insult me by calling me a customer. I don’t buy anything from City Hall. If I did — say I came in and asked how much it would cost to get Planning approval — you’d have the cops on me within minutes. What’s more, you’re not competing for my custom. Short of moving away, I have no alternative but you. If you were an actual business, you’d be up for anti-trust prosecution.

The truth is, you represent me. As far as I’m concerned, you are me. You represent my “agenda,” if you will. But you’re also everyone else in this city. And you represent a whole lot of other agendas as well. It’s your job to find ways to make them work, to make them work together. Not to dole out services to select individuals or groups. 

You spoke of Newsom’s search for a comprehensive service plan. I’m talking about a different kind of plan, one where citizens come together — proudly and cooperatively —  to work out ways to help the city survive and flourish. It’s the government’s job to facilitate our plan. Not the reverse.

May I ask you to lower your voice? I cannot help you if you are yelling at me.

I’m sorry, Randy. I didn’t mean to lose my temper. It looks like we’ll just have to find other ways of being good citizens, whether you like it or not.

May I suggest a visit to the Small Business Commission? Or maybe to the Chamber of Commerce?

OK, thanks. And thank you for your time.

Before you hang up, I’d like to conduct a brief customer satisfaction survey to allow us to set more appropriate performance goals and provide you with better service in the future.  May I ask you to take a minute to answer a few questions?…