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Biden tells agencies to put customers first

Americans spend billions of hours each year interacting with the federal bureaucracy

A volunteer helps an applicant fill out paperwork for federal rental assistance in Jackson, Miss. Associated Press/Photo by Rogelio V. Solis, file

Biden tells agencies to put customers first

On Nov. 5, Catrin Sahlberg went to a post office, filled out a passport application for her son, and paid $60 to expedite it. The agent said she might have the passport in as little as three weeks, so Sahlberg booked plane tickets to Sweden for Dec. 26 to see her parents for the first time in years. But as of this past weekend, the passport hadn’t arrived.

Sahlberg has spent hours on the phone seeking updates on the application, asking her congressional representative to expedite it, and trying to book an in-person appointment that would get her a same-day passport. She’s placed dozens of calls with no luck. Once an agent at the State Department’s National Passport Center found an appointment in Georgia, but it was gone before Sahlberg could sign up. She joined a Facebook group of people swapping tips on speeding up the process. One person posted about having paid $1,600 to a private business that promised to speed up the application, she said.

President Joe Biden has called efforts such as Sahlberg’s a “time tax” on people who interact with the federal bureaucracy. The White House estimates Americans spend 9 billion hours on federal paperwork each year. Last week, Biden signed an executive order aimed at cutting red tape at 17 agencies. He told the agencies to improve their customer service and streamline processes for everything from enrolling for food benefits to applying for fish and wildlife permits.

The executive order calls for a bundle of specific improvements, including an online-only option for renewing passports, the ability to schedule callbacks from IRS customer service, and revamped websites. It also directs agencies to pick their own high-impact services that need improvement, write plans for getting better, and measure their progress. The government agencies must compare their customer service with that of the private sector, which they regularly trail. In 2020, the government had the lowest score of the 10 industries measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

This isn’t the first effort to revamp the bureaucracy. President Bill Clinton’s initiative in the late 1990s led to cutting 426,200 federal jobs and gave online tax filing a boost. And according to Partnership for Public Service, a government improvement nonprofit, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ effort to improve its customer service has raised trust in the agency among veterans by 24 percent since 2016.

But that improvement took years. Sahlberg is crossing her fingers that the wheels of bureaucracy will grind forward in time for the family’s trip in a few days.

“We don’t even know which country we’re going to be celebrating Christmas in,” Sahlberg said. “If we could at least get some sort of an update, even if it’s not a good update … I call all these people, and no one can help.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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