How One Mayor Started Treating His Citizens More Like Customers

Provo, Utah

Provo, Utah Johnny Adolphson /


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“We forget it’s the person whose trash we’re picking up who is the one who puts us in office,” says Provo, Utah, Mayor John Curtis.

The mayor of Provo, Utah attributes his city’s recent customer service successes, in part, to his private sector background.

Prior to being elected mayor six years ago, John Curtis was a partner at shooting range manufacturer and, for a decade before that, worked for O.C. Tanner, a company that designs employee incentive programs.

Those jobs taught him not to neglect customers simply attending to day-to-day needs. In the municipal space, that includes worrying how streets will get plowed and where the revenue to fill potholes will come from.

“If we’re not careful, those things consume us,” Curtis told Route Fifty in an interview. “And we forget it’s the person whose trash we’re picking up who is the one who puts us in office.”

Local governments are slowly improving their approach to citizen engagement by communicating on the public’s terms and raising issues where citizens are already spending time, namely social media. In short, they’re starting to treat them like customers.

Every respondent to Vision Internet’s second annual “What’s Next in Digital Communications” survey of local government officials said citizen engagement would have significant impact on operations by 2020.

Making information and services more easily accessible through new technologies boosts levels of convenience for citizens, and officials are even rethinking their meetings to keep pace with the once-overlooked public sector.

“There is that increased competition with the private sector in some ways, where there are other avenues for citizens to receive some of those services,” said Ashley Fruechting, Vision Internet’s senior director of strategic initiatives. “If those services are diminished, people will look for them elsewhere.”

Curtis saw that Provo lacked an internal system for handling customer issues—for instance, residents calling random departments to report broken streetlights—so nearly four years ago, the city created a customer service department, a concept that was once foreign to many governments. That agency tracks incoming phone calls and follow-up response times as if the city were a company of the same size.

There’s also an online version of Provo’s 311 service, and City Hall is in the process of upgrading all its analytics tools because software was originally developed on an app-by-app basis, meaning they don’t talk to each other.

“I think that from the top I need to continue to establish this culture of customer service,” Curtis said. “We’ve got a good culture. My employees want to take care of their customers and understand how to solve customers’ problems.”

Diversity of perspective is important in any organization, Fruechting said, so bringing on employees with previous private sector experience or working with groups like Engaging Local Government Leaders furthers customer service efforts.

According to El Segundo, California-based Vision Internet, 61 percent of respondents felt SMS/text would have a “highly effective” impact on local government communication in the future and 84 percent said the same of social media. More respondents in 2016 felt that email’s impact would decrease, according to the survey.

Digital experiences are fast becoming people’s defining experiences with government, Fruechting said, creating perceptions that could lead dissatisfied citizens to vote elected officials out of office or “take their business elsewhere” and move.

“Our customer service is dovetailed by a transparency effort and citizen engagement effort,” Curtis said. “We have aggressive goals for social media because to have good customer service, you have to be good at those things.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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