Federal Contact Centers:

Mechanism for Sharing Metrics and Oversight Practices along with Improved Data Needed

GAO-06-270: Published: Feb 8, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 2006.

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Federal agencies have increasingly relied on contact centers--centers handling inquiries via multiple channels such as telephone, Web page, e-mail, and postal mail--as a key means of communicating with the public. Many of these centers are contractor-operated. Concerns exist about the accuracy of responses provided through contractor-operated centers. This report examines (1) the extent to which the contract terms and oversight practices for contact centers at selected agencies emphasize the importance of providing accurate information to the public, and (2) whether guidance for the operation of contact centers and basic information needed to provide general oversight exist. GAO reviewed one contractor-operated contact center at each of six agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), General Services Administration (GSA), U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Education (DOD, DOL, and Education).

The contracts and oversight practices for the contact centers of the six agencies reviewed, which handle millions of inquiries annually, varied significantly regarding the emphasis they placed on providing accurate information to the public. Although federal policy for disseminating information to the public specifically emphasizes accuracy, only four of the six agencies include accuracy as a performance metric in their contracts. With respect to oversight, only two of the six agencies used all four of the accuracy-related oversight practices we identified--regular knowledge database reviews, regular contact monitoring, postcontact customer satisfaction surveys, and validation of contractor reports. Although each agency used some form of oversight to assess the accuracy of the information provided by its contact center, each agency differed regarding how it implemented these practices. There is no governmentwide guidance or standards for operating contact centers--including guidance on specifying accuracy as a contract performance metric or as a key focus for oversight. Some agencies indicated that had federal guidance been available, it would have helped them establish performance indicators and develop oversight policies and practices. Recognizing the need for operational standards for contact centers, an interagency working group recently proposed draft guidelines to OMB and other federal agencies, but OMB has no plans to issue these guidelines or any standards for use by agencies. Additionally, until recently the federal government had not collected data on the universe of federal contact centers. OMB and GSA attempted to collect data on the number, types, and costs of federal contact centers in 2004, but the data collected were incomplete. In addition, no governmentwide procurement information was reported to the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) in fiscal years 2000 through 2004 using the reporting code for telephone call centers, which OMB said is the appropriate code for contact centers. The five agencies we reviewed that report data to FPDS used a variety of different codes, some because they believe that the telephone call center code is too narrow to cover the services of their multichannel contact centers.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To facilitate the sharing of sound oversight practices for the operation of contact centers, to help ensure that providing accurate information to the public by contact centers is a priority outcome, and to improve the quality of information gathered about these centers, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should, building on efforts begun by the GSA-sponsored interagency committee, work with agencies to develop a mechanism for sharing performance metrics and oversight practices for contact centers. Continued efforts should stress that providing accurate information to the public needs to be a key factor in the oversight of federal contact centers.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB has not yet provided any information to support whether it has taken action. In August 2009 an OMB official provided us with the following response: "The Government Contact Center Council (G3C) was established in February 2008 following a Government-wide assessment of citizen services conducted between the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007 by GSA. G3C, which is comprised of representatives of about 35 federal offices and is chaired by GSA (The Office of Citizen Services and Communications), meets once a month to share best practices and increase networking of leaders, managers, and directors of contact centers. " In GSA's response (9/28/10), a GSA official stated that The Government Contact Center Council (G3C) was established in February 2008 by the USA Services initiative under the management of the Office of Citizen Services , GSA. As an initiative under the oversight and guidance of OMB's Office of E-Government and Information Technology, USA Services was encouraged to initiate a number of government-wide leadership activities to promote a more citizen-centric environment and raise the level of customer service throughout government. OMB provides guidance and support to USA Services and G3C which includes support for the Government-wide Assessment of Citizen Service Activities and a new federal data collection survey on customer service that will report on levels of agency call center, web and walk in activities.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the sharing of sound oversight practices for the operation of contact centers, to help ensure that providing accurate information to the public by contact centers is a priority outcome, and to improve the quality of information gathered about these centers, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should take steps to ensure consistent reporting on contact centers by developing an industry category or specific code definition in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) that encompasses all the services provided by contact centers or by providing further instruction to agencies regarding the appropriate NAICS code to use for contact centers.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 16, 2006, OMB published its notice of final decisions regarding the 2007 NAICS revisions in the Federal Register. The revisions included changing the title of NAICS industry code 561422 from "Telemarketing Bureaus" to "Telemarketing Bureaus and Other Contact Centers" to more accurately reflect the industry. Although no content is changed, the title was revised, as OMB stated to reflect the actual activities undertaken and the various technologies used. An OMB official stated that this change was made in response to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality of information about federal contact centers, the Administrator of General Services should ensure that further efforts to develop governmentwide data on contact center operations--such as the survey planned for next year--employ sound methodologies to ensure that the resulting information is representative of the activities across the government.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GSA administered a new survey in 2006-2007 entitled the "Government Wide Assessment of Citizen Service Activities." The survey methodology for this new effort was improved and offset the weaknesses we identified in GSA's original survey. Specifically, in the current survey GSA: (1) attempted to obtain information from the universe of contact centers for the executive branch agencies, as opposed to the quarter of then-known entities in the preceding survey; (2) received a significantly increased number of responses than the predecessor survey in both department/agency and activity coverage as the 2007 survey had responses from 35 major departments/agencies (all 15 executive-level, 19 independent, and 1 quasi-independent) representing 6,500 activities versus 2004 had responses from 29 agencies (12 cabinet-level and 17 independent) representing 1,828 activities; and (3) performed follow-up with non-responding departments/agencies. As such, GSA took steps to ensure its latest attempt to gather governmentwide data on contact centers provided information that is more representative of the universe.

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