US gov’t plans to respond to e-mail within two days

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has launched what it calls the “first comprehensive customer service department for citizens” in the U.S. government, with a goal of responding to questions by Web, e-mail, or phone within two business days.

USA Services, the new GSA program launched Wednesday, will allow federal agencies to redirect questions sent to the wrong federal agency to USA Services staff, who will then answer the questions. USA Services can also function as a customer service center for federal agencies, with the new program responding to frequently asked questions for each participating agency, instead of agency staff taking time away from other duties to answer questions from U.S. residents.

“It’s going to save agencies money,” said M.J. Jameson, associate administrator in the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications. “Why should they build their own (customer service) systems when they can use ours? Agencies will be able to devote more resources to their core mission.”

Government officials touted USA Services, part of a President Bush e-government initiative to use technology to better serve U.S. residents, as a one-stop shop for people to get their questions about the federal government answered. Although the U.S. government already has a Web site,, and a toll-free number, 1-800-FED-INFO, aimed at answering constituent questions, the USA Services program will center the response services at one place, allowing for faster and more consistent answers, Jameson said.

USA Services will allow for a significant improvement in customer service, added Mark Forman, administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Most citizens know, and it’s really hard for people inside the bureaucracy to recognize this, it’s too hard to know who to contact in the federal government to get information,” Forman said. “USA Services will change the way the federal government responds to citizens.”

In the past, there hasn’t been a government-wide measure of how long it takes for a U.S. resident to get a question answered in the federal government, with response times varying widely, officials said. With help from a contractor, the six-member USA Services team is attempting to generate an immediate response to all e-mail, with meaningful responses within two days. During a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Interior, USA Services was able to answer about 95 percent of the questions asked, with the rest sent on to the agency for future research.

“The fact is, we’ve been doing it in two days, so we pledged it,” Jameson said.

After the creation of the GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications in June 2002, the cost of answering e-mail during this fiscal year, which started in October, has been about US$100,000.

Quick responses will be increasingly important, as GSA predicts that inquiries through, telephone calls, e-mail and other methods will grow from 45 million in 2002 to 74 million in 2003, with further growth after 2003.

“We are dealing with in the neighborhood of 100 million citizens inquiries on an annual basis,” said Stephen Perry, administrator of GSA. “We can easily see that number growing to 300 million, to 400 million. This is something the citizens are quite interested in.”

Twelve U.S. agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Labor, have signed up with USA Services to have questions answered through the new program.