By Greg Nelson.

It is nearly impossible to make a purchase at a store, or talk to a customer service representative on the phone without being asked to take a customer satisfaction survey afterwards. But missing from this frenetic concern about service quality is City Hall. Actually, all governments.

Some companies want my input so badly that they’re willing to bribe me.

After rating my experience at Jack in the Box, I got two free tacos. Rubio’s offered me a free drink. I was given free chips and guacamole by El Pollo Loco. And my local sandwich shop knocked $3 off my next purchase. I’ve got lunch covered for a while.

FedEx scanned some documents for me, and promised me $5 off my next order in return for telling them how they’re doing.

The nice lady at Target told me that if I completed its survey, I could have chance to win a $1,500 gift card. Not to be outdone, Home Depot and Best Buy give out $5,000 gift cards.

All this for just expressing my opinions.

But if a person wants to compliment a city employee, or offer suggestions for improvements, they’re out of luck. The message seems to be that City Hall doesn’t care.

Maybe it’s because, being a government, it has a monopoly on the services it provides, and therefore there’s no motivation to find out from its “customers” how the process is working.

Of course, that attitude just increases the distance between government and people it serves. It also helps to explain why governmental bodies are viewed so poorly by the public.

The City Charter doesn’t ask much of neighborhood councils, but Section 910 states that neighborhood councils “shall” monitor the delivery of city services.

Exactly how they do this is up to either the City Council through the passage of clarifying ordinances or policies, or the neighborhood councils by implementing their own plans.

It’s foolish to wait on the City Council to act. Every year since the new City Charter was approved by the voters has been a wasted opportunity.

City Council members and staff live in a bubble – one that I was in for 30 years. City departmental staff are quick to return phone calls and e-mail messages when you’re one the people who votes on their budgets.

After I retired and left the bubble, getting a response from City Hall became more of a chore.

Not only does City Hall not solicit the public’s feedback, but it’s exceptionally rare to get an acknowledgment when a person pushes an idea at City Hall. Anyone who takes the time to develop a comment and deliver it to City Hall deserves a response.

Expecting 90+ individual neighborhood councils to simultaneously pursue a project such as recommending ways to improve city government’s customer service is a fool’s errand.

The continued balkanization of the neighborhood councils is supported by those elected officials who don’t want the councils meddling in how the city is run.

To accomplish any significant citywide changes, there needs to be at least one leader who is willing to step to the plate and organize willing neighborhood councils behind a project. It can be done electronically.

To chum the discussion, here are 10 no-cost improvements that neighborhood councils could initiate:


Ask a City Council member to direct the Chief Legislative Analyst (CLA) to search for cities that place importance on improving customer service, and post customer satisfaction surveys on their websites, such as Altanta and Irvine.


Ask the Personnel Department to suggest how the quality of city service can be best evaluated, such as the time it takes City Hall to respond to comments (New York City has a goal of 14 days), and how long it takes to resolve complaints.

City regulations expect neighborhood councils to meet regularly with officials from city departments. The councils could ask departments to submit to them their ideas for improving customer service.


The websites and Facebook pages of city elected officials and departments shouldn’t be used just as a one-way tool to push out sanitized and non-controversial news releases. Residents should be able to communicate with city officials and get responses.

And city elected officials should be encouraged to use technology to engage the public in discussions about the city’s most pressing issues. It’s beyond absurd to assume that only city employees can generate useful solutions.


If city officials must attend a public meeting, their first choice is to control the event, and limit the question and answer period. They love captive audiences.

If that’s not possible, elected officials hope for meetings during which attendees walk one at a time to the microphone, and make long-winded speeches about personal issues that are of no interest to anyone else in the room. This makes it exceptionally easy for the politicians to dance around their answers. Bob, weave, “next person.”

Neighborhood councils should pick a specific subject, and prepare themselves to sit down with city officials and work toward a solution like civilized human beings.


Neighborhood councils could review all the departmental website FAQs and recommend new questions. At the same time, each departments should enhance its lists by adding Should Have Asked Questions.


What happens way too often begins when a person makes a cold call to a government office. The employee, knowing it isn’t their job, will guess at whose job it is and transfer the call to someone else whose job it isn’t. This happened to me all the time when I worked at City Hall.

To improve customer service, employees should explain that they think they know who the correct person is, and stay on the line with the caller to ensure that they are being transferred to the right person, and not just send the caller to the Voice Mail of someone who is on vacation for a week.

Government workers should be encouraged to re-engage callers to ensure that they were satisfied.


If City Hall won’t do it, neighborhood councils could form an advisory group of customer service experts from the private sector, starting with Nordstrom. Governments can’t be expected to operate as businesses, but they can adopt some private sector practices.


The city awards service pins to employees who have worked for the city for a certain number of years. It’s not enough to reward longevity. The city should develop a method though which it also rewards meritorious service.


The city hasn’t been doing much hiring in recent years, but that won’t last forever. Ask any city employee if their entry level examination had anything to do with the job they were applying for, and the answer will be “no.”

Southwest Airlines says it hires for attitude and trains for skill.  The city’s entry level exams should be reviewed for how well they identify applicants with good attitudes.


The city of Tempe swears by good customer service. Like other cities they charge a fee for some recreation programs, but if a person isn’t happy with the program the city will refund their money … a money-back guarantee just like any reputable business would offer.

None of this takes additional funding… just the will to do it.

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Originally posted at CityWatch LA.

Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs … and occasionally writes for CityWatch.