Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Core values and WMATA: customer service and charging for services not received

In the recent reporting on WMATA's (Metrorail in the DC metropolitan area) revenue projections for the coming years and discussion about potentially raising fares, one of the revenue sources mentioned is from people who enter a station and then exit it within a short time, presumably without riding a train, the presumption being that service problems led them to change their mind about proceeding ("Could an Entry/Exit 'Grace Period' Boost Metro Customer Satisfaction," Washington City Paper.

The revenue from this is $2 million annually.  And so the system is hesitant to change the programming for this type of "use" because they'd lose the revenue.

But making money off people who are dis-served, in fact not even served at all, is unethical.

A mission- and values-driven organization would not hesitate in making the right decision and stopping the practice.

This is the kind of behavior that would be protested were it from a prominent retailer.

Washingtonian Magazine doesn't agree ("Metro Shouldn't Reward People for Bailing on Trains.")  It's discussion is focused on finances, and the fact that peer systems also charge people similarly for "bailing on a train."

Applying customer service principles to services provided by government agencies.  From the standpoint of best in breed customer service, if you don't provide the service, you shouldn't get paid for it.  But that doesn't mean its easy for governments to do, especially when typically service (and maintenance) functions are underfunded.  See "How US state governments can improve customer service" and "Implementing a citizen-centric approach to delivering government services," both from McKinsey.

The past blog entry, "Level of Service and Level of Quality aren't just concepts from transportation planning," discusses locating "client" service centers for social services agencies far from where clients live.

This can be an issue with human and social services, medical and health care, and the timing and location of public meetings and hearings.  In the 2009 round of proposing amendments to the city's Comprehensive Plan, I suggested reconceptualizing the Plan as the city's "business plan," although by statute it deals only with land use, by default it is the only "master plan" the city has, to include an element on citizen engagement.  I didn't suggest metrics for service provision, but I did include discussion on holding meetings in accessible and central locations.  It's worth exploring that concept further.
Customer Bill of Rights: City of Seattle
Seattle Customer Bill of Rights.  In 2008, the City of Seattle created a "Customer Bill of Rights" to guide their approach to dealing with "customers."  From the webpage:
Many City employees take great pride in providing excellent customer service. But over the years our system has become bureaucratic and unresponsive. We can always do better.

In 2008, as part of our Customer Service Initiative, we adopted a Customer Bill of Rights that sets clear standards and expectations for our customers when conducting City business. Whether it's water and power, roads, or public safety, our customers are entitled to prompt, efficient and easily accessible service from the City of Seattle.
There are four elements to their Bill of Rights, that services be easy and understandable; responsive; fair; and results-oriented.

Charging for services not rendered is not "responsive," "fair," nor "results-oriented" but it is "easy and understandable," although for the service provider, not the customer.

Transit rider bill of rights.  Apparently. a number of transit agencies have created customer charters such as Boston's MBTA Customer Bill of Rights.  The Transportation Research Board aims to study the issue ("What does a "Customer Bill of Rights" mean for Transit Users and Transit Providers?").

Best practice resources.  I looked at some of the articles on the topic in Governing Magazine, but they didn't really address the issue very well.  Most were more focused on small pieces of the problem or digital communications elements of improving responsiveness by government agencies.  While that's important, it's secondary to the primary point of being focused on providing excellent, quality service to customers of government agencies.

That's a point I made in this blog entry, "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method," explaining that if a government isn't responsive at the most basic level, adopting digital communications strategies and focusing on "open data" misses the point.

I came across some interesting reports.  In The road ahead for public service delivery, produced by PwC UK, they start off making a point I hadn't considered, that collectively government agencies are the biggest customer service providers of all.

The report, Re-Imagining Customer Service in Government (by GovLoop), outlines five principles for reshaping how government serves its customers:
  • Design With the Customer In Mind
  • View Customer Service in the Context of the Mission
  • Share Resources Across the Agency
  • Tie Customer Service to Open Government
  • Consider Lessons Learned from the Private Sector
Note that I am not always a fan of the "customer approach" on the part of government, because it can cheapen the relationship between citizen and government by disconnecting from government the fact that government is created "by the people."  Instead of citizens we become customers.

On the other hand, when government agencies provide services, the activities should be expected to be delivered well, and so applying customer services best practices, standards, and expectations should be standard operating procedure, as is the expectation in Seattle.  Also see "A Framework for Advancing a Culture of Customer Service in Health and Human Services.

The opportunity for WMATA to be a world leader in transit customer service rather than a laggard. Unlike the discussion in the Washingtonian Magazine article, where it is explained that WMATA's practice of charging a fee for service not rendered is standard practice in the industry, and they need the revenue, why shouldn't the agency be very clear about what providing a service means, and that when they don't provide service they shouldn't profit from their failure.

In terms of my point that "world class cities don't just take, they give," nothing prevents WMATA from deciding to practice world-class level service/best practice, to be a leader rather than a follower and change the practice.

-- Best Practices in Transit, Seattle Urban Mobility Plan
-- Best Practices in Evaluating Transit Performance, Florida Department of Transportation
-- From Here to There: A creative guide to making public transport the way to go, EMBARQ
-- King County Metro Service Guidelines, Seattle

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