By William Wiley

Many of us use TripAdvisor or Yelp when we’re trying to decide where to have dinner. If we find ratings of four- and five-stars, we feel comfortable that the place will have decent-to-better food. However, if you’re like me, you avoid like the plague (or botulism) any place that’s rated primarily one- or two-stars. An eating establishment that is rated only one- or two-stars by its customers must have something seriously wrong with it.

So what would you say about a federal agency that asks its customers to rate it on Courtesy and Results on a five-star scale with:

** = Dissatisfied

*    = Very Dissatisfied

And 87% of the ratings are only one- or two-stars? What would you say if you found out that nearly half of the ratings were only one-star, that just under 50% of the citizens who had gone to that agency for help during FY-2015 were Very Dissatisfied with the Courtesy and Results they received? Would you not want to find out what was causing the low ratings, so you could understand better if something could be done to improve the situation?

Of course you would. You wouldn’t be staying in business very long as a private company with abysmally low ratings like that. We certainly should not expect less from our government than we do from a private business, at least on things like courtesy.

Historical Note: Did you know that President Jimmy Carter thought that courtesy towards the public on behalf of a federal agency was so important that he even had “discourtesy” added to the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 as a specific type of misconduct warranting a suspension? Did you know that discourtesy is the ONLY act of misconduct specified in the CSRA that warrants discipline? Check it out: 5 USC 7503(a).

Well, the agency that has recently disclosed in its annual report to Congress that it was rated one-sies and two-sies by its Very Dissatisfied clientele last year is … drum roll, please … the US Office of Special Counsel. Yes, if you manage to dig through the first pages of its fascinating 52-page annual report (https://osc.gov/Resources/FINAL-FY-2015-Annual-Report.pdf) , way back at the bottom on page 44, you will find the results of the OSC client survey that contains these troublesome ratings.

It seems obvious that ratings like this are the result of either of two things:

  1. Discourteous behavior on the part of OSC employees, or
  2. An OSC clientele that is particularly sensitive to courtesy.

When dealing with OSC, each of us has limited personal experiences. About 350 clients participated in the 2015 survey. Each of those people had his own unique interactions with OSC staff. On a personal level, I’ve been dealing with OSC employees for over 35 years. Here at FELTG, one of the legal services we provide is representing agencies and individual managers in dealing with OSC. Without exception, although many times I do not agree with them, the representatives of OSC have been exceptionally courteous with me. Perhaps it’s my own internal charm that draws courtesy out of people (ha!) or perhaps I’ve just been lucky. Whatever it is, I cannot say I have ever experienced discourteous conduct on the part of OSC personnel.

Of course, perhaps others have. If we do a study and it turns out that OSC personnel are routinely being discourteous, then the solution to the ratings is to train those personnel in being courteous, and then hold them accountable for practicing what they have learned. There are a number of companies (e.g., Nordstrom) that teach customer courtesy. OSC could contract for training, and then impose discipline as specified in the CSRA for those who do not obey agency rules about courtesy. Alternatively, OSC management could implement Performance Improvement Plans for employees who fail a Courtesy critical element.

What’ that you say? OSC personnel don’t have any critical elements related to courtesy? Maybe that’s the start of the solution right there. [Special notice to OSC management: If you are unfamiliar with these two approaches to employee accountability, come to our MSPB Law Week seminar next scheduled for September 12-16, in Washington DC. Free coffee!]

OK, we do our little study and we find out that, for the most part, OSC personnel are just about as courteous as we would expect government employees to be, maybe even a bit better than some others. If that’s the case, then perhaps there’s something about the courtesy sensitivity of OSC clients. The people who go to OSC for help believe that they have been mistreated, that management officials within their employing agencies have committed prohibited personnel practices against them. In other words, they believe that they are right and others are wrong. Some might call them self-righteous; others might simply call them right. Whatever the case, if there’s a personality characteristic that makes OSC clientele more likely to feel that they’ve been treated in a discourteous manner, shouldn’t we acknowledge that in some way? And once acknowledged, maybe there are things we can do to reduce the feelings of discourtesy in this particularly sensitive group, sort of how we give anger management training to people who cannot control their anger. Sometimes folks need help.

When assessing any survey results, we have to keep in mind that there could be a problem with the data-gathering methodology. However, assuming that there’s no methodology problem in the survey that produced the results on page 44, and assuming that President Carter was right that courtesy in government is important, then it seems obvious to us here at FELTG that somebody should look into the cause for such low ratings. There are things that can be done to improve the situation whether the cause is discourteous OSC employees or courtesy-sensitive OSC clientele. Of course, we don’t get to run anything here at FELTG except ourselves, but SOMEBODY ought to be checking this out. Wiley@FELTG.com

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