12/05/2010 08:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Good Enough for Government Work"

If you were seriously ill and could choose to go to a private hospital or a government-run veteran's hospital, which would you pick? If you picked the former, you could have just bet your life on the wrong choice. The veteran's health system outperformed all other sectors of the American health care system in 294 measures of quality in a 2004 RAND Corporation study. Last year, on the prestigious American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), run by the University of Michigan, the Veterans Health Administration civilian health and medical program got a score of 88 (out of 100), compared to the non-government hospital average of 73.

An anomaly? Not to be found in any other sector of the economy? Consider the following ACSI scores - and before you do, note that the ACSI model considers a wide range of service quality factors, from the courtesy and professionalism of customer service to the clarity and accessibility of information, the ease and timeliness of work processes, and the ease and usefulness of online assistance. Remember, all these data are obtained by an independent (i.e. non-government) source talking directly to customers about how they rate their customer experience:

• Mercedes-Benz (86) receives a lower score than the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (88)
• Nordstrom (83) receives a lower score than the Railroad Retirement Board (88)
• Nike (79) receives a lower score than the Federal Citizen Information Center (84)
• GE (81) receives a lower score than the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services "Welcome to the United States" guide (86)

OK, but in the new online economy, government is way behind, right? Wrong. Here are some ACSI score comparisons for Websites:

• (80) vs. the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( (88)
• (77) vs. the National Library of Medicine ( (86)
• (64) vs. IRS E-file (79)
• (82) vs. the Social Security Retirement Estimator (90)

Naturally, not every government organization performs better than every private sector organization. Government does have its duds, and the government-wide average ACSI score is seven points lower than the private sector average (though when government is compared to just the service sector of the private economy, this difference mostly evaporates). But government has its stars too, and they rarely get attention on the front pages of magazines, newspapers, or in the broadcast media. It's not surprising then, that in a Washington Post poll conducted in late September 2010, 36 percent responded that "the quality of employees in the federal government is generally lower than the quality of employees who work in the private sector." In the same poll, 49 percent said federal employees "work less hard than employees with similar jobs in private business". What citizens say about government in the abstract is often totally different than what customers say about government when they actually use its services.

This may be worth remembering as the nation mounts a new attack on government and government workers. The epithet we are used to hearing - "good enough for government work" - will be heard again, and worse. It may also be worth remembering, then, that in World War II, when that phrase was created, it meant that a product met the highest standards of quality and would not be accepted by Uncle Sam if it did not.

Yes, many say, but government is so big, unruly, and thus inherently incompetent. Sure, there may be a few good government programs out there, but overall, why can't it be as service-oriented and as customer-friendly as our local WalMart? WalMart gets an ACSI score of 71, exactly the same score as the U.S. Postal Service. Come to think of it, most of us really don't want to lose our local post office as we cut back government. There may be a message there.