As a reporter, I call the D.C. government often, trying to locate information. This means I usually end up listening to a lot of outgoing voice-mail messages. No matter where I call, each message states the name of the person I’ve reached, his or her organization and title, what number to dial for immediate assistance, and a promise that my call will be returned within 24 hours or the next business day.

Intrigued by the promise but mindful of all the hours I’ve stared at my phone waiting, I recently kept a log of all the calls I made to D.C. government employees in a week. The results of my unscientific study weren’t surprising. Out of a dozen people I tried to reach, most didn’t call back at all, not even after I rang them repeatedly. Sometimes, I ran into full mailboxes or was disconnected during a transfer. Only one person actually called me back within 24 hours.

That person was Yvonne McManus, who returned my call just five hours after I left her a message. McManus is the chief of staff of the mayor’s Office of Customer Service Operations (yes, there actually is one), and I contacted her because I wanted to know why, despite the fact that the District seemed to require its employees to at least state that they would return my call within a day, they seldom did.

The first thing McManus asked me, with what I judged genuine concern in her voice, was how my experience with the city had been. Then she invited me down to meet with her and a couple of other members of the customer-service team.

I meet McManus at her office in a small suite on the third floor of the John A. Wilson Building. Adjacent to her office is a cozy reception area with a bookcase tucked into the corner. A copy of Customer Service for Dummies occupies the top shelf. With a staff of only 12, the Office of Customer Service Operations is in charge of minding the manners of more than 35,000 city employees working in 73 different agencies. It runs the Mayor’s Citywide Call Center, develops customer-service standards, and generally oversees all areas of the government that have contact with the public. “I won’t say it’s easy,” says McManus, about trying to change the habits of D.C. government. “I came from a private organization where you issued something and it was done.”

In addition to setting customer-service standards, the Office of Customer Service Operations runs a quality-assurance program, in which it randomly calls agencies to check whether they’re actually following the city’s directives. In order to receive a passing grade, telephone service must be rated “good” or “excellent” in courtesy, knowledge, etiquette, and overall impression; main agency phone numbers must be staffed during business hours; and all voice-mail greetings must comply with the mayor’s standard. (That’s where the 24-hour call-back window comes in.) Telephone service can be considered “below average” if the operator doesn’t thank you for calling.

“We realize it’s difficult, but it has to be that way to get somewhere better than where we are now,” says McManus. “You can’t have bad days.”

D.C. government employees still seem to have plenty of bad days. To be fair, customer service on the whole has improved. Gone are the appalling phone manners of the ’90s, when callers were often forced to endure endless transfers or decipher what someone was saying through a mouthful of hoagie, the ambient noise of speakerphone, or both. The fact that the city is measuring customer service at all could be considered a victory. But in the first quarter of 2004, only five of the 45 tested agencies rated “meets expectations” or above. One of the worst-performing agencies? The mayor’s Office of Communications.

When I called Vincent Morris, director of the Office of Communications, he answered his phone right away. He told me he couldn’t talk that second, but he called back promptly. “That’s just a quirk of the system,” he says of his office’s poor ratings. The office’s customers are almost exclusively reporters working on deadlines, he says, so when anonymous testers call, they don’t always get the same attention.

Other agencies offer similar excuses when it comes to voice-mail responses. Despite the efforts of McManus and her associates, last year only 28 percent of the agencies returned two tester phone calls within the required 24-hour period. And it’s getting worse. So far this year, only 20 percent of agencies have passed the test. The Department of Mental Health, one of the failures so far, defends its reputation by pointing out that at 1,500 employees, it’s doing well in comparison with similarly sized agencies. The Department of Human Services suggests that two unreturned phone calls aren’t indicative of its ongoing efforts to improve customer service. One call was not returned because the employee had been reassigned, and the other is “under investigation,” according to Debra Daniels, communications director for the agency.

But you’d think that with just two and not, say, 20, phone calls to return, everyone would have passed with flying colors. According to the Office of Customer Service Operations, the reason why they didn’t may be that many government employees lack seemingly intuitive customer-service skills. When program analyst Kelly Brown runs through the customer-service standards—which she helped draft in 1999—at new-employee orientations, she marvels at how often people approach her afterward to thank her for teaching them how they should behave with customers. “But the standards aren’t any different than what I’d expect when interacting with anyone,” she says. “Whether it’s inside the government or outside, I expect people to return my calls, to be pleasant on the phone, and to use correct grammar.”

Brown thinks one of the solutions to the District’s dreadful voice-mail responsiveness might be to flood it with new hires who already have the requisite skills. “We need to look at hiring practices for customer-service skill sets,” she says. “Instead of working with what we have and going forward, we need to make sure that this culture is a customer-service culture as a whole.”

In fact, replacement, rather than rehabilitation, sounds like the city’s best bet, because the Office of Customer Service has no disciplinary power. Theoretically, agency managers can reprimand, suspend, and even terminate employees for poor customer service. But most of the offenses that McManus sees translate into discussions rather than dismissals. “I think if there is an egregious problem with professionalism, then, yes, it can lead to a disciplinary action,” says Martha Knisley, director of the Department of Mental Health. “We like to look at it as a carrot and not just a stick.”

But even if Brown and McManus can change the culture—through new hiring or performance standards—they can’t change the reality that many government workers simply lack the time to attend to all the phone calls they receive. “With people being understaffed and one person answering everything and phones are ringing and ringing, that might have a lot to do with it, don’t you think?” says Dorothy Hawkins, a librarian’s assistant at the D.C. Public Library.

Donna Bennett, a staff assistant in the Department of Health’s Bureau of Community Hygiene, handles most of the department’s phone calls, which range from rodent complaints to West Nile– virus questions. On the morning after a long weekend, she says, it’s common for her to have 70 messages waiting for her, which she must attend to herself. “Twenty-four hours is realistic,” she says, “but if it’s after a long weekend, I know I have to hustle.”

And if Bennett gets an assignment from her supervisor, that’s going to take priority over returning calls. But she doesn’t worry too much about reneging on her voice-mail promise, because callers are usually so consumed with their problems that they’re not thinking about anything else. “That person isn’t going to remember ‘24 hours or the next business day,’” she says.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Deanna Staffo.