GOVERNMENT departments that handle thousands of clients a day, such as the National Registration Department, Road Transport Department and Immigration Department, have borne the brunt of much criticism from the public for poor services rendered. The queues are long while the service is relatively slow (although there have been improvements), forcing many unlucky customers to return in the afternoon or another day to complete their transaction.
There was a case recently of a customer who arrived at 8am but was not served even after waiting for four hours. When he inquired at noon, he was asked to come back at 2pm. Of course, he blew his top and was caught on video banging his hand on the table while screaming that he should not be made to wait for that many hours.
But people generally suffer in silence and just wait for their turn. The net effect is that the country loses thousands of man hours in waiting time.
Why do our government workers behave the way they do? Firstly, unlike the private sector, there is only one service provider for certain services. Malaysians who wish to get a passport have nowhere to go except the Immigration Department. They cannot go to another service provider even if they are prepared to pay more. Similarly, if one wishes to get a driver’s licence or apply for the MyKad, there is no alternative service provider.
So it is obvious that the reason for poor service at a government department is the lack of competition. This environment does not spur the department to lift its service level to attract and/or maintain its customers.
Interestingly, sectors such as education, telecommunications and medical services, which used to be the exclusive domain of the government, have seen their service quality improve markedly with the arrival of alternative service providers.
Secondly, unlike the private sector where profit is crucial for the long-term survival of a business, there is no bottom line for government organisations. Whether the customer waits for hours to be served or is inconvenienced because of system inefficiencies, the department will not have to pay any cost/price nor will the staff be booted out for bad performance. No matter how slow or fast the counter clerk works, he continues to receive the same monthly salary accorded to his grade.
Bonuses are paid across the board and are not linked to performance, so there is little financial incentive to work hard. And although there are annual awards for the best employees, these do not seem to be enough to motivate the staff to excel.
I would like to share an incident where the head of a government department boasted to participants in a conference about the competency and efficiency of his staff in handling public inquiries by setting up several hotlines. When a participant challenged him to call one of the said hotlines, the senior civil servant was red-faced when there was no response despite calling the number twice. The phone rang but no one picked it up. For those who were assigned to answer the phones, it didn’t matter whether they did their job efficiently because their monthly salary remained intact.
Sadly, many department heads fail to understand the importance of providing courteous and efficient service to the public. They rattle off impressive mission statements, clients’ charter and a long list of customer-friendly measures, but on the ground, they often provide little support or leadership, except when chairing meetings. There is little follow-through and the public continues to suffer from poor service delivery.
It is clear that total commitment from the top is imperative to effect change, particularly in a set-up steeped in inertia.
To improve customer service, the head of department should display empathy and be willing to listen to both customers and employees. To get an independent assessment of quality of their service, they could assign outsiders to act as customers and get the necessary feedback.
Concrete steps should also be taken to make the department’s policies, procedures and systems customer-friendly.