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Programs that Respond to Citizen Needs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
May 24, 2016

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson warned a House subcommittee:

“The Internal Revenue Service has lofty goals for the next five years and beyond. But the agency’s plan to address a mounting workload with shrinking resources will fail if it continues to base its decisions on inaccurate assumptions about what taxpayers want and need.”

At the crux of Olson’s concerns is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) plan to begin using more online taxpayer accounts and eliminate in-person and over-the-phone services.


For more than 20 years, there has been a push for government at all levels to be more responsive and accountable. Citizen engagement efforts have proliferated. Committees, task forces and surveys have become common. Websites and social media outlets have been developed. Usually, a first stab at increasing citizen access is to create a Facebook page. Calls for transparency have led to an increase in data availability online. Nevertheless, some argue, the current presidential campaign demonstrates that citizens find government to be unresponsive or untrustworthy.

In an era of diminishing resources, especially since the 2008 recession, governments have looked to technology to address citizen concerns. But technology innovation can backfire. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) attempted to work more efficiently by increasing technology while decreasing staff. However, long lines reflect that this approach has not worked. The Veterans Affairs (VA) adopted technologies and alternatives to reduce the wait time at VA hospitals. Yet the latest data show more, not less, wait time. Reliance on social media may increase criticism of government actions, making it easy to post disapproval anonymously. Data sets without explanations can lead to inaccurate conclusions or increased confusion.

This is a conundrum: citizens want and need face-to-face interactions with government administrators, but the revenue stream does not support increased staffing.

One possible answer is increased citizen involvement and participation in decision making. This is the focus of the U.S. Public Participation Playbook, issued by the General Services Administration (GSA). “Public participation—where citizens help shape and implement government programs—is a foundation of open, transparent and engaging government services. From emergency management, town hall discussions and regulatory development to science and education, better engagement with those who use public services can measurably improve those services for everyone.” As the GSA and the 70 federal agencies involved in the effort can attest, public participation is both critical and difficult. The guidelines provided in the playbook are not novel, but the playbook is a quick reference guide to the essential elements of participation– from planning to reporting.

Another answer is better training for all public employees. The Disney Institute trains its employees to respond the seemingly “dumb” question, “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” as an opportunity to understand the guests’ real question and personalize the response. According to Bruce Jones, senior programming director at the Disney Institute,

“From what we have observed, every organization has its own “3 o’clock parade” question. First, you must find yours. Then, you must train employees how to anticipate such questions and use them as an opportunity to exceed customer expectations. This represents a huge opportunity for organizations to differentiate themselves by reassuring each and every customer that they are truly listening and empathetic to their concerns. Ask yourself, what is your organization’s “3 o’clock parade” question? How can you help train your employees to forgo the seemingly obvious “need” in favor of understanding what each customer truly “wants?”

A third possible answer is volunteers. At McCarren Airport in Las Vegas, you might be greeted by a volunteer of the sheriff’s department, who is not a sworn officer but instead an extra observer for the department. School volunteers are able to significantly increase the amount of individualized instruction that students receive. State and national parks use volunteers as hosts, who assist paid staff with park maintenance and surveillance. Effective volunteer programs support the work of paid staff, provide additional “eyes and ears” for the organization, serve as important public relations resource and function as avenues to gaining experience for people entering or returning to the workforce.

A clear sense of what citizens want and need—along with sufficient time to develop appropriate and responsive programs and technologies—can lead to better programs and to a more positive evaluation of government services by citizens.

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email: [email protected].

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