Customer Satisfaction Is Janesville's Bottom Line

By Little, April; Nielson, Staci et al. | Public Management, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Customer Satisfaction Is Janesville's Bottom Line


Little, April, Nielson, Staci, Sheiffer, Steven, Public Management


An ultimate goal of every local government is to create a community with which the residents are satisfied. The bottom line in local government is customer satisfaction.

Customer service and customer satisfaction, of course, are different ideas. Good customer service means that employees are courteous and give correct information in a timely way. While good customer service is crucial to customer satisfaction, it is not enough. Customer satisfaction means that citizens are satisfied with government's actions, not just how it gets the message across.

Janesville, Wisconsin, has embarked on a strategy to build a customer satisfaction - oriented organization. The city knows the strategy has succeeded because it has measured the results.

Building a Foundation for Change

Janesville is a growing city of approximately 59,000 people in southern Wisconsin that has operated as a council-manager community since 1923 and offers a full range of services, including water, wastewater, transit, and housing. There are 425 city employees, and Janesville consistently has the lowest costs and staff per capita among comparable-sized cities.

Five years ago, the organization was a traditional, bureaucratic one. It valued standard reporting structures and process, advancement of long-term employees to management, and management of citizen complaints. Janesville had a good economy and a supportive council and was reluctant to change.

To begin the transition from a bureaucratic to a charge-oriented organization, two basic changes were needed: only professional managers should fill management-level positions, and young local government generalists should be attracted who would then become the next generation to manage the city. So, when these changes were made, vacant assistant management and supervisory positions that had traditionally been filled from the ranks would be filled by young professionals from Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois who had just received their MPA degrees.

These professionals brought new thoughts, new ideas, and inquisitive minds. (Suddenly, every process and procedure came under review. Imagine the shock in the street department when a 26-year-old MPA replaced a 25-year veteran assistant superintendent.)

Next, a position was created in the personnel department to coordinate employee training programs, emphasizing broad-based management skills rather than specialized and technical training. Other staff received total quality management (TQM) facilitator training.

Janesville also initiated internal and external information networks. A series of employee focus groups evaluated the internal communication process. Employees made frank and critical comments but also offered constructive suggestions. As a result, new bimonthly newsletters written by the personnel department and city manager allowed better communication with all employees. A separate community information program was budgeted to provide information to citizens, including mailings of a quarterly newsletter and production of a weekly radio show.

Nine management positions were eliminated to thin out the top-heavy management structure, simplifying reporting relationships and cutting some red tape. Department-head performance evaluations were revised to include customer satisfaction as a critical evaluation criterion. Adding satisfaction to performance evaluations has provided a way to quantify results and enhance accountability.

Council Leadership and The Satisfaction Strategy

In 1996, two incumbent council-members were unseated and the new members called for strong council leadership, to focus on customer satisfaction and to reduce costs.

In October 1996, the council set five priorities. Only two were unanimously supported: cost control and customer satisfaction. Although these two priorities may have seemed contradictory, in reality, to achieve customer satisfaction citizens must believe that government is serious about cost control. …

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