WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden signedan executive order Monday intended to improve basic government services such as renewing a passport, claiming Social Security benefits, filing taxes and getting through airport security.
It’s not clear how quickly the measures will go into effect or how much of a difference the order will make in making government more responsive.
“I would describe this as a starter pistol, not the end of the race,” said Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan good-governance organization. He said the Biden administration has set out the right goals and metrics, and he hopes the public will help keep the White House accountable.
The order directs 17 federal agencies to improve the customer experience in more than 30 areas.
Administration officials said they’re trying to help people navigate a too-often tangled web of government websites, offices and phone numbers.
Biden said on Monday that he believes the changes will help prove that democracy still works for its citizens.
“I know it sounds like a simple thing,” Biden said when he signed the order, flanked by cabinet officials, “but I think it’s pretty consequential.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the changes will take six to 12 months to implement.
The ability to apply for passports online, for example, will start on a limited basis this month but will take time to dramatically expand, according to Neera Tanden, a senior advisor to Biden.
For tax filers, reports by the National Taxpayer Advocate show the challenge faced in improving customer services.
During the 2021 tax season, the IRS received a record number of calls – and only 3% of callers who dialed the most frequently used toll-free number reached an IRS employee.
The IRS’s customer satisfaction challenge is “formidable,” said Tara Dawson McGuinness, co-author of the book “Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology.”
And that affects how much people trust their government, she added.
But, she said, Biden’s directive has “a real chance of making progress that people can feel.”
Having agencies report back to the White House through a “pretty serious, senior-level review,” McGuinness said, is a lot different than collecting data to be sent off to an obscure committee.
In addition to targeting improvements for specific services, the executive order requires ongoing assessments of the customer experience for 35 “high-impact service providers.” Those reports will be made public and annual improvement plans will be required.
Improvements are intended to be made using existing resources.
The assertionthat the changes can be implemented at no cost is wrong, said Stier of the Partnership for Public Service. But resources can be redirected, he said.
“The most important resource is leadership attention,” Stier added. “What’s important with this executive order is you’ve now got the president saying this is something that he wants done.”
The administration also wants to better integrate services across federal agencies to help, for example, a retiree who is dealing with both the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services for different benefits.
Tanden said the directive focuses on the “greatest points of friction” for people – such as dealing with the IRS, claiming Social Security benefits and getting through airport security.
“Our focus, she said, “is really ensuring that we’re minimizing those frictions.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian and Rebecca Morin.
Maureen Groppe has covered Washington for nearly three decades and is now a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @mgroppe.
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