Shame on Us

We've made it so difficult to access certain government services that we've ended up spawning entirely unnecessary industries.
by | March 16, 2011 AT 7:00 PM

I am a frequent sufferer of television-induced insomnia. If the tube is on, this kid is awake. It really doesn't even matter what's airing — amateur gold-miners in Alaska or hoarders in Illinois, I can get hooked.

My wonderful wife usually keeps me in check by assuring we pull the plug at a decent hour, but when I'm on the road doing a workshop, or facilitating an improvement team, all bets are off. I may see Good Morning America before I see a pillow.

Last week I was in Phoenix getting ready for bed when the original Vacation came on. I had to watch, at least until they strap Aunt Edna to the roof. Somewhere between contemplating whether Billy Joel is the world's greatest hypnotist and the real tomato ketchup scene, I saw a commercial that really hit me and I haven't been able to shake it since.

We've all seen these commericials before: "If you need help with your Social Security benefits, call the law firm of Baylor and Shifflet. We'll fight the government for you!"

But have you taken a minute to think about what these commercials say about the business we are in?

We are so confusing to deal with that you have no hope of navigating our process without the help of a lawyer. We do not want to help you. We do not want you to get your benefits. Prepare for battle, because we are big and bad, and we get paid whether or not you do.

I was a little embarrassed for the public sector. This is what we put our customers through? Potentially worse is that it has become so commonplace that in the million times this commercial has run tonight, I've been completely oblivious to the real message. I've met people who work in Social Security benefits offices. They are nice people who at their core want to help people in need. Yet the pipes of their process are so twisted, so gunked-up, we have an entire law specialty needed to help people in need deal with them.

Shame on us.

Shame on us for making things so complex and confusing that people who really need us can't get to us without legal representation. Yes, we need to fight fraud. Yes, we need to follow a lot of rules. Yes, we need some semblance of order. But enough to keep millions of lawyers busy?

Before we dismiss this as a problem unique to the Social Security Administration, let's take a look at some government-mandated functions where an entire industry has popped up to help people navigate. I did some very scientific-based research, by which I mean I Googled the following terms:

  • Social Security Benefit Law Services — 7,500,000 results
  • Environmental Permitting Assistance — 800,000 results
  • Building Construction Permit Assistance — 16,000,000 results
  • Tax Services — 290,000,000 results

Now let's remove half of those in each category for government-based sites designed to help. The numbers are still staggering. It's worse when you consider I have not included advocacy groups and "industry watchdogs." These groups help our customers all the time. While working in the mental health industry, I learned that advocacy groups representing our customers are often experts in paperwork and benefit packages not only for their state, but their neighboring states. They have to be in order to help families deal with some of the most important decisions they will ever make.

Shame on us.

It was never our intention to make customers feel so ... well ... so ignored and mistreated that they had to find help to get to the noble things we want for them. Imagine the increased hassle and resource drain if you needed an automotive engineer each time you took your car in for an oil change, or if you needed a lawyer to get your prescriptions. But we in government do this to our customers all the time. It's not all about the inconvenience to them either. There is a deeper issue of how we view the whole issue of customers:

Many of us feel as if we do not have customers.

Those of us with customers have a lot of customers, and none of them want the same thing.

Our customers often don't want us around, and we end up with adversarial relationships. (Think of the customers of the prison system.)

Our customers don't understand that the pipes are there for them. If they would only learn what we need from them, they would see the process is pretty simple.

We confuse customer service with customer satisfaction and end up not delivering either.

Public Great is going to dedicate a good amount of time to the theme of "Customers in Government." Once we recognize that our work is all in the pipes, the most important thing we have to struggle with is that our customers serve as the bridge, the connection, between those pipes and our noble outcomes. In other words, unless our customers are active participants, we cannot have clean air, pubic safety, educated children and healthy communities. In its basic form, if no one comes to the health clinic, then no one gets an immunization shot, an epidemic spreads, and we wasted millions on lollipops. More abstract, if a factory does not use our environmental guidance, we have polluted air and water. Both groups are customers we need in order to achieve our outcomes.

We recognize we have a lot of customer issues we need to get our arms around, but nothing may be as key to knowing how to fix our pipes like when we work with our customers to improve that connection, to build a better bridge. In the weeks to come, please engage in the customer conversation and help us strengthen that bridge. By the time Clark pulls a BB gun on John Candy, we need to have better commercials.

In the comments, please share what industry would be hurting if government was easier to use.