Government Thy Name Means Service

From dispatching an ambulance to save a life, to making sure someone who has lost a job gains access to the benefits of which they are entitled, to executing all manner of inspectional services, licensing, care for our seniors, concern to level the playing field for people with disabilities and a myriad of other tasks crucial to maintaining our modern civil society, Government is a major provider of services. My purpose is not to argue to what extent this is proper. There are plenty of pundits in that fight today. My purpose is to recognize the reality that government is a big part of the contemporary service industry and to argue that a productive use of our energies is to look for ways to help government deliver those services in an increasingly efficient manner.

The challenge of delivering service efficiently is one of nature. As in any complex system, entropy increases over time in the service delivery networks of government. In the same way that by natural processes the once neatly laid cables to our computers, phones, printers and other office appliances seem to autonomously accumulate into a complicated squirrels nest, so too do the processes in intricate systems including that of government service delivery.

Like parts of that entropic mess dangling behind our desks, big parts of government’s service delivery challenge includes the upkeep of the conduits transmitting information. As government solves problems, the challenges of the management and dissemination of information accumulate. Parts of the reasons are that the problems we ask government to solve don’t arrive neatly timed. Legislated mandates evolve, vulnerable populations spring up, a fickle populace sends mixed signals about priorities and services need to be deployed and often redeployed in response. Emergencies, natural disasters, political realignments and all manner of changes in priorities shift the playing field for government administrators and challenge the efficient deployment resources. Few opportunities arise to pull that desk away from the wall and conduct the comprehensive spring cleaning we might desire.

Government contact centers are but one example. Each new problem seems to come with its own toll free number. As much as newer communications media comes into vogue, and as I have written previously governments have been on the forefront of using new communication modalities, government must also continue to rely upon legacy communications. This is because unlike commercial entities who may for any number of reasons choose not to serve some market segment; government must serve all. Each citizen is entitled to their share of the common wealth. Access means maintaining the lowest common denominator even while expanding into new communications horizons.

So like the way cables accumulate from the wall jacks to devices on our desktop what happens over time is the accumulation of information processing resources supporting the mission of government. The telephone directory tells the tale.

Curious about just how big this problem may be I picked one US state at about the middle of the population scale and estimated the numbers of phone numbers advertised for access to government agencies. Just this one state government out of the fifty states, four territories and the District of Columbia publishes a directory that has 75 pages of telephone numbers. Each page has about 60 unique Lead Directory Numbers (LDN in the language of telephony). That’s in the neighborhood of 4,200 LDNs. Included are 267 unique toll free (800, 866, 888, etc) numbers. The US federal government and the over 500 major agencies (just one agency, the IRS has at least 17 published toll free numbers) and all manner of local and municipal governments grow the totals multiplicatively. The tale told by the directory listing is expansive and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

An LDN, as the name implies is usually accompanied by a block of other Direct Inward Dialed (DID) numbers accessing individuals and contingent agencies. It also typically means a unique communications server. Behind this may lie one to many Automatic Call Distributions (ACD) systems, Call Management software systems, Citizen Relationship Management systems, numerous reporting engines, workforce management tools and many other systems supporting the delivery of services. A complex web of technologies aggregates over time.

So what can be done? How can we solve government’s Gordian Knot of information processing so that all can receive the service to which we are entitled done so in as efficient and cost effective manner as is possible? Solving this problem is one of the most significant opportunities to drive new efficiencies in how government delivers. As Steve Rohleder wrote recently in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “Just a 1 percent annual increase in public-sector efficiency would close that gap,” in the public sector debt. Small improvements promise big returns.

The truth is that much that can be done to make the processing of government information more efficient. My suggestions on how considerable new efficiencies may be gained, especially in the ways the government manages contact centers, will come in upcoming blog posts in this space. Please return to learn more.

Thank you for your time.

I’d be honored if you chose to follow me on Twitter @gclinch and check out my LinkedIn profile.

Photo caption: “Forest Hills, N.Y., Dec. 2, 2012 — People from a variety of organizations assist survivors of Hurricane Sandy at the FEMA Call Center in the Joint Field Office in Forest Hills, N.Y. FEMA is working with various partners including federal, state local and tribal governments, voluntary faith-based and community-based organizations, along with the private sector, to assist residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Chris Kleponis/FEMA”
FEMA Photo, Video & Audio Use Guidelines.

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