Public employees, take heed: The next time you answer a phone call or help a citizen face to face, the person you're interacting with might not be quite who you think. Whether you're fielding a question about city services, cleaning graffiti off a wall or rounding up a stray dog, it's possible you're being watched--and evaluated--by an undercover customer.
A growing number of cities have begun using "mystery shoppers" to help gauge how public employees are performing in their jobs. In these programs, cities may hire private companies--or use community volunteers--to anonymously assess how effectively and efficiently city workers respond to requests. The city, in turn, can use those evaluations to measure and improve services.
The deployment of mystery shoppers has been standard practice in the business world for half a century. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a private company that doesn't use this," says Ron Welty, the president of IntelliShop, an Ohio company that provides mystery shopping services. Welty is also a board member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. The majority of mystery shopping in the private sector focuses on restaurants, retail establishments, banks and grocery stores.
In recent years, the mystery-shopper idea has caught on with municipalities and other public-sector entities, such as park districts and airports. Governments are using this approach not only to evaluate their own employees but also to assess private services on behalf of the city, to ensure they're in line with the city's goals. Welty's firm, for example, recently completed a project for the city of Toledo, in which mystery shoppers evaluated hotel services, which the city wanted to improve for its convention and tourism business. "Mystery shopping has a lot of uses for government," Welty says. "It's a way to help show taxpayers that their government cares about providing them with the best possible service."
Cities from Miami-Dade to Richmond to Somerset, Massachusetts, are planning such programs or have already implemented them. In Chicago, mystery shopping is an integral part of the city's performance management system. City staff members are assigned to test public services, from calling in to the city's 311 information/help line to making an appointment at a public health clinic. The city recently announced it would expand the program to include evaluations of its public transit system.
Dallas has a program that organizes and trains volunteers throughout the city to report on the services they receive. Launched a couple of years ago, the program originally required hours of training, and mystery shoppers had to fill out evaluations several pages long. Last fall, the city revamped the program, simplifying it and focusing on core services. Today, the city conducts volunteer training at least every other month, as well as smaller sessions for homeowner associations, crime-watch organizations and even one-on-one over the phone. About 70 mystery shoppers regularly work with the city, evaluating the level of customer service they receive from the city's 311 information/help line, as well as a host of code-compliance issues, which include everything from litter pick-up and garage-sale permits to graffiti clean-up and lifeguard training.
"It helps us improve the city and our services, and it helps the people who live here, too," says Barbara Fakheri, the mystery shopping coordinator for Dallas. Fakheri discusses the volunteers' evaluations with city departments on a weekly basis. "There are times when we as a city fall short in the services we provide," she says. "And we're just a little too close to see it. It's helpful to step back and hear from others' experiences."
Dallas considered hiring an outside firm to conduct the mystery shops, but the city decided that community volunteers would not only be more affordable but also provide a better picture of the actual citizen experience. "Hearing directly from the people receiving these services gives us a little better insight into how we're doing," Fakheri says.