Citizens…should be able to get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But in many (most?) agencies, it doesn’t happen.
What exactly is this test that I do? Well, I pick some topic that would interest most citizens - I want to send my child to college...can the government help? I want to buy a home…can the government help? My child is obese and I want to know what kinds of foods to fix to help him. That kind of thing. I pick one agency to test (many topics cut across agency boundaries…so part of what I hope to find are suggestions for where else to look). I go to that agency’s website(s) to see what they have to tell me. I send an email to the web manager through the “contact us” link on the agency website. I go to the Frequently Asked Questions section on the website and see what it says.
Then I call the agency. I call at least two numbers - the general number listed on the website (usually a locator or call center service but sometimes just a recorded message) AND the number for the agency's local office. Once, I wrote a letter to the agency head (which means it’s answered through their correspondence unit), asking the same question. If the “Contact Us” page shows other ways to communicate with the agency, I try them. I particularly like to try the live chat, if they have one.
Sometimes I take another step or two – I go to USA.gov and see what their FAQs say about the topic (GSA coordinates responses with the agencies). Or I go to the Federal Citizen Information Center (you know – those Pueblo, Colorado folks) and see what information the agency has available there. Or I try the USA.gov live chat. I always ask the same question, the same way.
Here’s my recent experience. The good (and the bad) news is that most channels referred me back to the web. Good news in that they're citing one place to go (though it wasn't uncommon to be sent to different pages on the website - not the same entry point). The bad news is that if I'm a citizen who doesn't have a computer, doesn't like computers, or just prefers to talk to a live human being on the phone, I'm out of luck (too many of those darned recorded phone messages that don’t include a human alternative!).
Though I was glad to finally talk to a human being, I found it frustrating when I landed in a call center with people who really just acted as switchboard operators and didn't have personal knowledge of the subject. Most times, they eventually got me to a place to start (again, normally on the web), but it wasn’t always the same place I’d been directed by other channels. Too often, they send me on a scavenger hunt because they really don’t know enough about the subject to pick the best place to start.
OK – so why do agencies fail this test? Because communications channels are managed by different parts of the agency, and they don’t check with one another to make sure they’re all speaking with one voice. There’s no one assigned to coordinate among the channels, and no one is doing – routinely – that very simple test that I do to make sure customers are getting good service.
How could you solve this problem? Well, you could put all of those channels under one umbrella organization – an Office of Communications or and Office of Citizen Service. Hold one manager accountable for making sure everyone sings from the same songbook. That makes a lot of sense – improve citizen service and probably save a bit in overhead costs. I’ve been an advocate of this approach for years, and I think it’s the right thing to do. But it could require significant reorganization at some agencies (not to mention the political – small “p” – hurdles)…and that can take months (or years).
Here’s another idea. Maybe the “New Media Directors” that many agencies have designated could turn into “Directors of Communications Strategy.” They already create strategies for using internet-based channels – just add print, correspondence, phones to the mix. They could work with managers to decide which channels to use to deliver content AND – as important - make sure that the public gets the same message, no matter how the content is delivered.
In the best of all possible worlds, the whole government would speak with one voice. At the very least, an agency needs to speak with one voice. It’s a basic of good customer service. And it’s the right thing to do.
3 Must-do's for Agencies to Improve Citizen Engagement (Federal Computer Week)