Measuring customer service quality in local government: Fulton County Human Services shares its experience with surveys and recommends ways to use them to improve customer satisfaction

Brenda Sullivan

This article explores how the SERVQUAL service quality model can be adopted by and applied in a human service agency. The Fulton County Georgia, Human Services Department (HSD) Office of Planning and Community Partnerships (OPCP) utilizes six modified SERVQUAL indicators–responsiveness, reliability, competence, accuracy, courtesy, and completeness–in its performance measurement system.

Established in 1990, the Fulton County HSD administers human services at the county level. The human services grants (HSG) program, administered by OPCP, is a discretionary fund established by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. Currently, 135 agencies receive funding in six competitive program areas: aging services, children and youth, disability affairs, workforce development, homelessness/transitional housing, and HIV/AIDS.

HSD is in the midst of a pioneer endeavor, developing a structured method for incorporating a department-wide quality improvement framework for the first time in Fulton County. With the assistance of external consultants, the department first assessed its organizational structure and ultimately streamlined a number of functions. One of the key additions to the department was the creation of the continuous quality improvement unit responsible for, among other things, surveying customer satisfaction.

Surveys and Analysis

The SERVQUAL survey measures customer perceptions of quality in private-sector services. Customers rank services and identify the kind of service an excel lent company would provide. In its creation of the human services grantee satisfaction survey (HSG-SS), the HSD unconsciously used the SERVQUAL model, but–although it contains the core ideas of the original survey–the HSG-SS is not a true SERVQUAL instrument. OPCP first used the HSG-SS at the 2005 annual grants meeting. In this survey, grantee partners were asked to rate their satisfaction with customer contact and the importance of each phase of the grants process (see sample survey).

SERVQUAL measures the difference between what customers expect and what they thought they actually received. Calculating the difference between the expected and perceived is known as gap analysis. Organizations try to turn negative gaps into positive scores. The HSG-SS does not gather data on these gaps, but we captured these data in a service expectation survey This survey also gave us the opportunity to determine which types of quality services were most important to our grantee customers, for example, whether they value responsiveness more than accuracy and reliability more than courtesy.

We acquired new information in the analysis of the HSG-SS using the SERVQUAL model, discovering areas for improvement throughout the grants process. We then combined the HSG-SS results with the service expectation survey and used an importance-performance analysis (IPA) to clarify what grantee customers find most important in regard to satisfactory service and the grants process. Using an IPA, not only were we able to verify that we were performing well, but also the level of our performance.


SERVQUAL can be applied in numerous settings as long as the key tenets, mainly the SERVQUAL quality dimensions, are maintained. We recommend the follow ing for governments and nonprofits that want to adopt some form of SERVQUAL:

* On the whole, SERVQUAL or a modified version is most useful when employed to test the impact of changes made in organizational processes.

* If the organization is limited in its capacity to implement program measures, combining a SERVQUAL-type survey with satisfaction measures may be an easy way to introduce the concept.

* The survey should be developed from a process map of activities that illustrate the SERVQUAL quality dimension identified in the appendix, especially when conducting a satisfaction survey rather than a quality study.

* A gap analysis is needed, but it should consider the convenience of the customer and organization. A modification of the original SERVQUAL gap analysis is best, but if that is not possible, a modification of the original survey should allow the examination of the importance of quality.

* Finally, private-sector models aren’t designed for public decision making. Careful selection of participants is necessary. In our case, the customers were nonprofit partners with which we maintain a specific relationship. They are well aware of all customer-related phases of the grants process and could speak with authority and knowledge when providing an assessment.


We have begun to understand that each of our grant phases has some aspects of the SERVQUAL quality dimensions and have data that illustrate which grant activities are reflected in the dimensions. We are looking more closely at each phase of the grants process to determine how we can improve.

Although several SERVQUAL service quality dimensions are part of county-wide program measures, in HSD only the HSG-SS has analyzed them as they relate to a programmatic satisfaction survey We are now using aspects of SERVQUAL in a survey that measures how satisfied our internal and external customers are with the OPCP research reports, taking the transferable, general service-related statements and their quality dimensions from the HSG-SS and adapting them. In this way, we can compare how the various programs and units are performing compared with each other. OPCP now faces the challenge of applying the SERVQUAL model to other divisional units.

Certain business improvement models are useful in human services, but they have limitations. Marketing-related business applications may not be the best tools for citizen surveys because citizens may not be involved in all phases of the process. The SERVQUAL model may not be suitable for all types of public-sector customers. The customers must be clearly defined and have a working knowledge of the processes considered.


Corin, Joseph, and Steven Taylor. “Measuring Service Quality: A Reexamination and Extension.” Journal of Marketing, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1992), pp. 55-69.

Parasuraman, A., Valarie A. Zeithmal, and Leonard Berry. “A Conceptual Model of Service Quality and Its Implications for Future Research.” Journal of Marketing, Vol. 49, No. 4 (1985), pp. 412-50.

Scott, Donald, and David Shieff. “Service Quality Components and Group Criteria in Local Government.” International Journal of Service Industry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (1993), pp. 42-54.

Wisniewski, Mik, and Mike Donnelly “Measuring Service Quality in the Public Sector: The Potential for SERVQUAL.” Total Quality Management, Vol. 7, No. 4 (1996), pp. 357-365.

Zeithmal, Valerie A., A. Parasuraman, and Leonard Berry. Delivering Quality Service. Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations (New York: Free Press, 1990).

Brenda Sullivan, PhD, is a research analyst, OPCP, HSD. She can be contacted at Cheryl Estes is the coordinator of HSD’s continuous quality improvement unit.

Sample Human Services Grantee Satisfaction Survey

In its effort to better serve you, the Human Services Department needs

your feedback on various components of the human services grantees


1. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing strongly disagree and 5

representing strongly agree, indicate the extent to which you agree

with the statements.

2. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing least important and 5

representing most important, indicate the extent to which each

category is important to your agency.

3. Please use “N/A” if you are unable to answer the question.

Thank you for your assistance.

Dimension Agree/Disagree Importance

Program Goals Measured (1 to 5) (1 to 5)

The goals and objectives Competence

of the HSG program are

clearly communicated.

Strategies to achieve Reliability

program goals are



Technical assistance: Courtesy

the location and

timing of the

technical assistance

session is convenient.

Technical assistance: Completeness

the information about

the application process

is comprehensive.

Application submission: Responsiveness

the availability of

staff is


Notification of Reliability

grant recommendation:

the award notification

is provided in a

reasonable time.

Scope negotiation Responsiveness

process: timeliness

of staff availability

for scope revisions

is reasonable.

Grant award and Completeness

contract execution:

notification methods

for the contract

award are sufficient.

Grant award and Accuracy

contract execution:

instructions on the

contract execution

process are clear

and comprehensive.

Grant award and Reliability

contract execution:

contracts are

received in a timely

manner after scope



Please provide any comments that can help us to enhance our service


COPYRIGHT 2007 Bureaucrat, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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