I frequently ride the bus to work in downtown Washington, D.C. It’s usually standing room only among grim young professionals with their hair still wet from the shower and their eyes glued to their smartphones. But on one particular bus, the driver is so relentlessly upbeat and chipper, calling out a welcome to every rider as they board and bidding a great day to those getting off, that you see a surprised smile from many and a bemused glance up from the phone. “Taking off slow now, hold on!” “This is R Street, last stop before we go under the little bridge!” And then the clincher: “If nobody tells you they love you today, just remember, Operator Perry loves you!”
Most D.C. bus drivers I’ve encountered are courteous and pleasant, but this guy is something special, and I doubt he got his approach from some kind of customer service training. But it works. And I’ll bet you this: When the Metro transit system is looking for a tax or fare increase, the folks who ride Operator Perry’s bus will be more likely to support it than those who don’t.
At the recent launch of the new Center for Effective Public Management, former Vice President Al Gore talked about the effort he led to reinvent the federal government. He said the National Performance Review team had struggled over whether to use the word “customer” to talk about the people federal agencies serve. The pushback, of course, was that these people were citizens, owners of the federal government, and not merely its customers. But ultimately the team settled on the word because it wanted to emphasize the need for agencies to be responsive to the people they serve.
When the book Reinventing Government came out, I embraced most of David Osborne’s and Ted Gaebler’s ideas, but I really hated the use of that word, “customer.” I’ve come around. When I was mayor of Kansas City, Mo., I held town hall meetings with municipal employees as well as with citizens. It was the middle of the recession; wages were frozen and we were laying off hundreds of city workers. I told them how proud I was of the important work they were doing. And I told them about this experience I’d had shortly after the election:
My wife and I were sitting outside a coffee shop in the city’s upscale Plaza district while a city water crew was repairing a major section of the street. A well-dressed woman in a nice car pulled up to the barrier, obviously confused about which way to go. One of the crew members approached her car and gruffly waved at her to simply turn around, then turned back to his co-workers, and shrugged and laughed. The woman might have been from one of the city’s wealthy suburbs, in which case the encounter wasn’t gauged to bring her back to shop at the Plaza. Or she could have been a city resident, one who now might be less likely to vote for a tax increase and, even worse, who might now be thinking about moving out of the city.
My message to the municipal employees was that the city has to compete just like any business and that their wages—and perhaps their jobs—depended on us doing well in that competition. Osborne and Gaebler were right. Al Gore was right. And so is Operator Perry.