When Public Officials Play Hide and Seek

The low-tech telephone plays a key role in keeping government connected to citizens. Too bad, officials never pick up. (Photo: Chris Campbell/Flickr CC)
May 2010
Phone keypad
Chris Campbell/Flickr
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Using Web sites to communicate with the public is a brave new world for governments. People can perform all kinds of transactions online that previously required a trip to city hall or a department of motor vehicles office. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "For everything you gain, you lose something else."

The truth is, even as the electronic means for citizens to reach out to a government grow more sophisticated, those means often lead to a frustrating struggle. They may make it easier to get through to government, but there's no human being to talk to once the citizen gets there. Getting specific phone numbers from "information" lines, for instance, can be a trial of errors. (We tried getting a number for the New Haven, Conn., Department of Public Works and wound up, initially, with the New Haven Public Schools.) Finding phone numbers on Web sites can be like searching for a digital needle in an electronic haystack.

This isn't a tiny quibble. With states and localities suffering from a growing level of citizen distrust, the need to do whatever they can to engender good relationships with voters has never been greater. Telephones are hardly an antiquated technology in the pursuit of this goal. Researchers in Georgia discovered that about 27 percent of its citizens get their needs met through a face-to-face encounter; 20 percent use the Internet; and a whopping 37 percent are still using the phone.

Daryl Frey, who works in the Human Resources Enterprise at the Department of Administrative Services in Iowa, says he's sure many citizens feel like their government is trying to avoid talking to them. He feels that way, too-and he works for the government. "After 30 years and with retirement coming in June," he says, "I marvel at how difficult it is for me to navigate to the correct person who possesses the information I seek."

Georgia has emphasized customer service in recent years, in part because when officials started researching the subject, "The first thing people said was the government was too slow," says Joseph Doyle, administrator of the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. The second point: Citizens complained that they couldn't figure out how to reach the person they needed to talk to. Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration took action, cataloging some 2,000 services that the state government provides and hitching that to a point of contact for the service. When a citizen calls, a state operator guides him to the right person-as indicated by the information in the database-and stays with him on the line to ensure that they've reached that person successfully.

There's an obvious hazard in constructing a falsely positive picture of the good old days. Certainly at a time when there were many people who could be reached on the telephone, there were annoying busy signals, frustratingly long waits on hold and seemingly endless transfers from one office to another. Still, the potential efficiency of phones seems to have been forgotten in the e-mail era. How many times have you tried to make an appointment with someone using e-mail, which involved exchanging four or five or six messages? The same transaction is much simpler on the telephone.

What's more, the ever-growing reliance on electronic communications continues to disenfranchise some. An FCC survey recently found that more than one out of five U.S. adults doesn't use the Internet with any frequency. And one out of 10 doesn't even see the point of being online. These non-onliners, the survey found, are likely to be older and see the Internet as a dangerous place.

Bob Schilling, a director of the Human Capital Network, a group of coaches and consultants who serve client organizations through the development of effective leadership, agreed that it's frustrating to only reach a public official's office via e-mail, but says there are reasons why the public sector has shied away from supplying easily accessible phone numbers:

- Prospective suppliers who try to circumvent the procurement process.

- People "who are sure they saw Elvis in the building or that aliens have landed near a transit station."

- Mouth breathers calling to make exotic social offers to the person answering the phone.

- Organized protesters "who will completely jam a phone number if they find a particular government action not to their liking."

So-called 311 lines go a long way in helping. An ICMA study of 311 technology from March 2008 found that 64 U.S. cities and counties had 311 systems designed to help citizens report potholes, malfunctioning streetlights or backed-up storm drains, according to project director Cory Fleming. Still, 311 "won't replace your calling the council president and saying, 'Don't cut our school administration budget,'" says Fleming. "It's not a replacement for policymakers by any means, but it does take some burden off our policymakers in responding to concerns and requests."