When it comes to etiquette and courtesy, operators at D.C. agencies have some rude surprises in store.

Adrienne Cato has a wonderful view of 14th Street from the mayor’s call center on the eighth floor of the Reeves Center. But she rarely turns to look at it. Mostly she focuses on her computer monitor, which supports two Curious George dolls and a stuffed lion.

Cato leans over her keyboard. A window appears on her screen. “Active,” it says, and she launches into her routine: “Thank you for calling the mayor’s call center. This is Mrs. Cato. How can I help you?” A pause. “Ma’am, this is the mayor’s call center….In reference to what, ma’am?”

“Ma’am, I’m going to connect you to the mayor’s office,” Cato says. “Hold on.”

It’s a simple transaction. And an unusually smooth one, according to Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ city government self-evaluation report, mailed to all D.C. residents on Jan. 7.

The report contained some eye-catching facts. When it comes to operators’ etiquette, just 17 percent of all the District government’s phone services were rated Good or Excellent in surveys conducted by testers hired by the mayor’s office. Only 24 percent of agencies were rated Good or Excellent on operator courtesy. But, in contrast, 95 percent of them were rated Good or Excellent on knowledge.

Some of the city’s most widely used agencies fared worst. The Department of Motor Vehicles’ score for overall impression of phone service was a cringe-worthy 1.4 on a scale in which 5 is the highest mark; combined with knowledge (4.4), courtesy (3.3), and etiquette (2.7), the score helped yield the DMV an average rating of 2.95, the second worst of the city’s 41 agencies. Only the Office of Child Support Enforcement (2.75 average) scored worse. Also faring poorly were the Office of Tax and Revenue (3.00) and the Metropolitan Police Department (3.03).

But Cato has something to say to all those snickering or shaking their heads. “The people here care,” she says. “A person who works as a customer service representative is like a field soldier. We’re on the front line. We get it all….You’ve got a few cracked eggs, but not all the eggs in the basket are cracked. You can’t lump everyone in one basket. That’s not fair.”

For years, calling the District government has been as frustrating as sewing without a needle. Callers have gotten used to waiting on hold for five minutes, getting transferred to three different voice mails, or reaching operators who respond to urgent city problems with major attitude.

“Common Operator Behaviors,” according to an internal mayor’s office assessment, include putting callers on hold immediately after picking up the phone, answering calls with a sigh, finishing conversations in the background before assisting callers, chewing food or gum while talking, acting defensive or abrasive, transferring calls for simple questions (such as “What is your mailing address?”), and ending calls with “Umm hmm.”

The mayor’s call center, known officially as the Citywide Call Center, was meant to change all that, by helping citizens reach the proper District agencies and by centralizing and tracking services. In April 1999, the mayor’s office cleaned out a dusty room in the Reeves Center that formerly belonged to the Department of Public Works, and it hired temps and phone operators from various agencies.

Now, up to 27 operators answer the call center’s number, (202) 727-1000. They make transfers, provide basic information (street addresses, government hours, and so on), and take service requests, handling as many as 3,000 calls a day from customers who are uncertain which agency can help them.

Lisa Morgan, the mayor’s deputy chief for customer service, admits that the District government’s phone service is poor and needs improvement, operators are sometimes rude, and callers sometimes wait on hold too long. But it’s far better than it used to be, she argues, and getting better, partly because of the call center. She points out that, before 1998, no one monitored government phone service—and no one cared to.

Now, if something goes wrong—if someone is rude—managers can hold workers accountable, Morgan says.

To that end, Morgan oversees a separate program, started in August 1999: call testing. The testers, mostly temporary workers, call each of the District’s 41 agencies more than 100 times over a two-month period to ask basic questions and rate the service. That testing was done three times last year. Morgan then took the results to the agency heads and demanded improvement. “You can imagine this doesn’t make me popular with some of my peers,” she says. “But no one took accountability before.”

Getting a 4 or 5 rating on the 1-through-5 scale used by the testers isn’t easy. To earn a high rating, employees must answer calls within three rings, state their name and agency, and solicit information from the caller. They must provide information or transfer the call, and then thank the caller or wish him a good day, according to a mayor’s office memo of Oct. 26, 2000. And they must be polite at all times. If operators don’t wish you a good day, that’s minus 1 point right there.

At the Office of Child Support Enforcement, the worst-rated agency, employees thanked callers for calling just 1 percent of the time. The MPD thanked only 5 percent of callers. By contrast, the public libraries, rated among the top three for phone service, thanked callers 77 percent of the time.

“None of these numbers surprised us,” says Morgan of the poor scores. “We’re doing OK. But compared with where it started, we’re doing a world better.”

The District’s phone-testing center isn’t much of a center, just a smattering of phones and computers on the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square. But it’s from here that the District’s phone-etiquette police call every government agency, ask simple and complex questions, then rate the service based on knowledge, courtesy, and overall impression.

On a rainy Friday morning, I give it a try.

I sit down at a desk with a large black phone (with enough keys to do stock trading) beside a large computer screen displaying the tester form.

First I call the Commission on Arts and Humanities. “Do you have grants that support education programs for children?” I ask, reading from a prepared script.

The woman identifies herself, provides the information and a Web address, and thanks me for calling. Kahni Ward and Celeste Moneme, who help run the testing program for the mayor’s office, listen in. They say the operator did well and should get perfect scores of 5 for knowledge, courtesy, etiquette, and overall impression.

Arts and Humanities is the second-highest-rated agency for phone service.

More typical is the experience of calling the Office of Tax and Revenue, rated third to last. After dialing, it takes a minute to meander through the automated prompts. Then we’re put on hold for three minutes and 23 seconds (minus one point).

A woman answers but doesn’t identify herself (minus another point), and I read from a prepared list of questions.

“Yes, hi, umm….I’m doing a research project for a class and, um, I was wondering what you guys do there?” I stammer.

“What do we do here? This is the customer service line,” she shoots back smugly. A pause. She then gives me a canned sentence about tax forms and filing periods and financial reporting. Then silence.

“Just for the District?” I follow up.

“Yes,” she says. A little baffled, I thank her and hang up.

That kind of service isn’t good enough for Ward and Moneme. The operator didn’t identify herself, wasn’t cheerful enough, didn’t ask if I needed further information, and didn’t wish me a nice day. The operator earns a rating of 5 for knowledge, but a 3 for courtesy and just a 2 for etiquette.

“We don’t want to be looked at as average,” Ward says. “When you’re trying to change perception, you have to do that much more.”

John Hart, who sits at the front of the mayor’s call center, says that the testers’ statistics can be misleading. And he thinks that working for the call center can be rewarding, despite the angry callers who curse or threaten him. For example, the center sometimes gets calls from “Mrs. Brown,” a woman who often phones looking for her lost son or to ask if operators can check her bank account because people are stealing her money.

Says Nancy Epps, who sits right behind Hart, “I couldn’t find [Mrs. Brown’s] lost son for her, so I got to talking to her, and talking to her made her feel less down.”

So now, on some slow days, Epps provides a service not measured by the mayor’s testers: She calls Mrs. Brown to check in on her. CP