Competing Interests

Toothpaste and taxes can teach us a lot about simplifying government for citizens.
by | April 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

I thought April would be a good time to write a column about taxes and a topic people in government love just about as much as taxes -- customers. As many of you may know, one of my previous jobs in government was as deputy director of a large state agency responsible for taxes and DMVs. Much like the "I learned in Kindergarten" book series, everything I ever needed to know about customer satisfaction in government, I learned there.

I learned that people don't like the word "customer." I learned that telling auditors "the customer is always right" doesn't win friends. I learned that customer-service training washes off the first time there is a two-hour line and the computer stops working. But most importantly, I learned about competing customer interests -- a reality we all face in government at every level in every agency.

One of the push-backs I get in my workshops about customer satisfaction in government is, "Ken, this would all be so easy in the private sector. They just have to worry about one customer. But we have multiple customers with competing interests."

I sympathize with that sentiment. In many ways, the concept of customer in the private sector is much easier, but the reality is that the private sector struggles with the same issue we do.

Let's use a very simple example: toothpaste. Our common notion of customers is of someone who walks into a store, buys something and walks out happy. So when it comes to that tube of Crest, determining who the customer is seems like an easy exercise. If I walk into Target and buy a tube of toothpaste, I am the customer. There, that was easy.

But what if I'm buying the toothpaste for my kids to use? Now who is the customer? Is it the person paying for the toothpaste or the people using the toothpaste?

And might there be competing interests? As the "funder," I want the toothpaste to be cheap and destroy every nasty molecule in my kids' mouths. They, as the "users," want the toothpaste to be delicious and play music. Who should Crest give the priority to?

This is the same classic dilemma we face in government every day. The people who "use" our "toothpaste" are often not the same people who "fund" it. If we focus exclusively on our funders, we create a cheap, gag-inducing mouth purifier that sends kids screaming out of the bathroom.

But wait. There are even more customers to consider in my example. What about Target? Crest has to worry about the store's requirements as well -- how big the box can be, how it has to be labeled, shipped, invoiced, etc. And then we add the regulators -- the FDA and the ADA -- who sanction and certify what is in the toothpaste. (And of course four out of five dentists have to approve.)

That's nine customers for something as simple as a tube of toothpaste. And each of those customer groups has a competing interest. No matter what industry you're in, deciding who your customer really is can be a tough call.

In government, unfortunately, the way we have resolved the debate is to lump all the competing groups together and label them "stakeholders." It's a term we use when we are too lazy or confused to figure out who should get priority. The term feels safe and inclusive, but it can lead to disastrous effects.

Take tax forms, for example. No doubt as you were struggling through line 46 of Schedule SE 1312, while turning back and forth in the booklet looking for the definition of a "non-obligated spouse" (real term, unreal concept -- at least in the Miller household), you paused to mutter your appreciation for the utter simplicity and ease that is doing your taxes.

Perhaps you even questioned what forces conspired to make this such a delightful task. The answer? Stakeholders.

If we were to make a list of customers/stakeholders for a tax form, whom might it include? Obviously, there's the tax agency (including its processors and auditors), the taxpayer, accountants and tax preparers, software companies, and you can even throw in legislative bodies for good measure. Again, what we tend to do in government is lump all these groups together, call them stakeholders and get on about our business.

However, might these groups have competing interests? For example -- as a taxpayer, what is your number-one expectation of a tax form? EZ. For tax preparers and tax software companies, what is their number-one expectation of tax forms? Uh oh. Competing interests. How do you decide whom to prioritize when designing tax forms?

To decipher who the customer is in this mess, we first must go to the purpose of the "widget" we are talking about. In this case -- a tax form. For what purpose was it created? To ensure we have a robust tax preparer industry or boost the share price of Intuit? No, the forms exist to help taxpayers determine what they owe and help them to meet their civic obligation.

If the customer can't use your "widget," you will struggle to meet your outcomes. If taxpayers can't make sense of tax forms, they will struggle to correctly fund the government -- or worse, pay an additional "tax" to accountants to prepare their taxes. (This is exactly what is happening in the government permitting field as well).

To show you how absurd this gets, Congress has actually forbidden the IRS from creating a user-friendly Web site where you could go online and do your taxes. Their rationale? It would hurt the customers. This makes perfect sense if you treat all customers as an undifferentiated pile of stakeholders. While a tax form has many "stakeholders," we can't lose sight of the "user." And too often, in a crowd of competing interests, the users have the least powerful voice. (This explains why you can't find a decent song on the radio, why you can't get in to see a doctor today and why economics classes are only taught at 8 a.m.)

How can we shift the balance of power? Change who we hang out with.

Anyone with teenagers knows that often the most powerful influence over the teen's behavior is his or her choice of friends. Similarly, in government, we are heavily influenced by those we spend the most time with. Quite often, that means we hear the most from our funding sources or associations representing various "stakeholder" interests. One of the simplest ways to empower the users of your widgets is to actually go talk to those users. Bring their voices to the table with everyone else's.

One of my favorite experiences with this concept was bringing in a group of average taxpayers and having them do their taxes in front of the staff of a tax agency. After 20 minutes, we had to stop the simulation for fear of everyone's safety. Prior to the experiment, the general consensus at the agency had been, "If they would just read the instructions...." Afterward, the team members put their heads together and greatly simplified the experience.

So "the customer" is a complicated player in any industry -- and of great consequence in ours. There is rarely only one customer, and we are often faced with multiple customers with competing interests. Our challenge in government is to balance these competing interests while never losing sight of the "user" of our widgets. Who uses your widget? Who was it originally intended for? When was the last time you talked to them? When we can help our users be successful, we are successful. Sure, it's hard work, but that's why you get paid the big bucks!

Enjoy your refund!