How Operating Government Faster Can Improve Quality

This is part three of a four post series regarding Ken Miller’s great book Extreme Government Makeover. In Part 1 we learned that government is like a house in that most of the important work goes on in pipes hidden from public view behind walls. The problem with improving the performance of government does not lie with employees. Improving government performance requires us to focus on changing the systems (policies and procedures), that employees must work with. Governments system of pipes are broken, rusted and twisted, which limits their capacity to serve the public.

In Part 2 we learned five strategies to make government work faster. In this part Miller addresses the concern of whether making government work faster will affect the quality of government services.

How Operating Government Faster Improves Quality

If you watch a few episodes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, there’s one thing that you’ll notice pretty quickly. The houses they build aren’t shacks. They’re actually quite impressive. The high-quality homes are built to meet all the right municipal codes and standards. They have roofs, multiple stories, gutters and usually a dozen flat-screen TVs scattered throughout. It’s not as if the builders get to the big reveal at the end of the episode and say, “We only had seven days! You didn’t really expect us to put in windows, did you?” When I talk to people about making government go 80 percent faster, the first question they throw back at me is whether quality will suffer. Won’t going faster make our work sloppier? Absolutely not. I am not advocating cutting corners. It’s not about skipping the windows or leaving off the gutters.

Is Extreme Makeover doing fourteen months of work in seven days? No. They are doing seven days of work in seven days. The way we go 80 percent faster is not by doing the tasks themselves faster, but by radically rethinking the system so that we’re just doing the tasks — only the tasks — with as little lost time as possible between them.

One of the biggest sources of water into the pipes — at DMVs and at lots of other government offices — is repeat customers. In a typical DMV office, up to half the people in line are there on their second, third, or fourth attempt. Despite all the letters the state mailed explaining what to bring in, despite detailed lists on the website and the huge signs in the lobby, customers inevitably would forget to bring all the necessary documents. For the DMV offices Miller worked with, the customer service model had amounted to “Too Bad For You.” Customers were told to go home, get the right documents, and come back again later. In fact, our stats showed that six in ten customers were being sent away. When they would return (angry and frustrated), they’d clog the line and rob us of capacity. We worked with the managers to shift from a “Too Bad For You” approach to a “How Can We Help?” model. For instance, the most common reason customers were being turned away was for failing to bring proof-of-insurance documentation. For lots of people, locating an insurance card is a fool’s errand. It’s just not gonna happen. So under the new management approach, no customer was sent home until we’d done everything we could to find the right information for them. In most cases, this involved having the customer move out of the line while somebody contacted the insurance carrier and had the card faxed over. This worked, but it required a lot of effort. Finally, the management built relationships with all of the major insurance providers to get electronic access to their policy lists. They did the same thing with county tax collectors, because the second most frequently forgotten item was a proof that you had paid your property taxes. Now, someone like me can walk into the office completely oblivious of my civic duty and walk out with a shiny set of plates. These measures led to more than a 50 percent reduction in repeat visitors.

In public assistance offices, Miller has worked with customers who have to go home to get more documents are handed a piece of paper for each document. The papers show exactly what the document looks like — with pictures — along with step-by-step instructions for how to get it and support numbers if any questions arise. Repeat visits dropped dramatically.

The reality is that, when you study your pipes, most of the problems you deal with happen at the very beginning. The very first interface with the customer creates most of the havoc we deal with later on. If a form letter is hard to understand, the customers do the wrong thing. If an application form is too complicated, customers don’t fill it out correctly. If the data-entry screens are too complex, the employees don’t fill them out completely or accurately.

By straightening our pipes, we move people through the system faster. The remarkable thing is that we also do it better. It’s better for the customer — shorter waits and fewer frustrations. But it’s also better for government. When we’re able to help customers right the first time, we’re left with more resources to assist the people who really need our help. We increase our capacity to do more good, and that’s better government. We can make government faster, and we can make it better. But the billion dollar question is this: Does that make it cheaper? Which we will discuss in my next post.

Do you agree that operating government faster can improve the quality of services?


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