Complaints Help Solve Problems

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 17, 1999, p. 13A

There is a radical revolution going on in public agencies. It’s called “stakeholder service.” The Post Office alone now has 1700 Customer Advisory Councils.

Our school district’s stakeholders include students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the taxpayers footing the bill. Virtually everyone who lives within our district.

Some of the most progressive corporations and agencies make everyone a stakeholder service representative. That makes sense for us because we often alternate between roles.

When a fifth grader gave me a tour of her elementary school, she was the stakeholder service representative and I was the stakeholder. When she gave me a suggestion for improving her school, she was the stakeholder and I was the stakeholder service representative.

One useful study of stakeholder relations is Serving the American Public: Best Practices in Resolving Customer Complaints, a March 1996 Vice President Gore team report. It’s available as a link from my Web site ( [Previously ]) and would be useful reading for any Iowa City business or agency.

Gore’s group involved about equal representation from business and government. It benchmarked best practices from both. It’s impossible to summarize a lengthy report in a short column. But most of the recommendations are directly applicable to our school district.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the radical culture shift this would represent for our district, but these are the basics.

Imagine what it could mean to the constant improvement of our schools.

Every suggestion from a student, parent, teacher, staff member or other member of the community taken seriously. Recorded. Evaluated as part of trends. Responded to promptly and courteously.

Surveys that ask more than “Do you think your principal is (a) well above average, (b) outstanding, (c) unbelievably fantastic?”

Matt Goodlaxson says Quik Trip trains managers to respond to every customer complaint with, “What can I do to make this right with you?”

And that 90 percent of the time mere listening is enough. (The federal report agrees.)

Should the district “give in” to every request, however irrational (or even illegal)? Of course not.

But we, too, can at least become good listeners.

Not defensive. Constructive. Record the comment. Respond. Trends may show we have a real district-wide problem. If so, let’s fix it.

The Gore group reported that 40 percent of the time, problems could be traced to inadequate communication and information. (Sound familiar?)

We’re responding, in part, with open, televised public meetings, the district’s Web page and my own, documents available in schools’ media centers – even this column. But clearly we all know we can do better.

If the Board will let the community know that we want “complaints,” and then show we take them seriously, we can ride a crest of never-ending improvement in our already excellent school system.

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.