What is the value of your agency’s face time?
On a flight back from a child support enforcement conference (NCSEA 2010) in Chicago, I couldn’t help but notice the headlines that a city just outside Atlanta, Georgia is causing.
The newsworthy event?
Well if you haven’t heard, the city of East Point opened up their waiting list for Section 8 public housing. The agency required applicants to travel to a local shopping mall to pick up the paper forms that citizens must complete to get a chance at public housing.
What started as a great piece of news turned into chaos when 30,000 people fought traffic and heat to have a chance at being placed on a waiting list. By the end of the ordeal, there were about 13,000 applications picked up amidst police ready to break up any riots and ambulances taking care of several medical emergencies.
Are these the types of in-person interactions you value?
There are discussions I am sure going on about the growing demand for public housing and the effectiveness of these types of programs in helping families back to self-sufficiency.
However, what I want to focus on is the challenge I’m seeing at many agencies that provide services to citizens. With unemployment at 9.5%, it is not only public housing agencies that are feeling a growing influx of applications. How do you keep the heart in public service with such drowning workloads?
All the child support enforcement agencies that presented at the NCSEA conference have seen a jump in case load. The complexity of these cases have also increased. Starting in 2009, there was tremendous jump in cases that involved inter-agency collaboration with unemployment agencies as greater number of those paying child support faced unemployment.
Many of these agencies still have about the same number of staff members supporting these programs, if they are one of the lucky ones. The need to be more productive is critical, otherwise we face the other fate, overwhelming adjudication backlogs, over-flooded call centers and packed agency offices. This was something that became very visible in the East Point, Georgia case.
All the child support agencies I saw presenting at the NCSEA conference recognize that self-sufficiency can start at the agency. It is not only the benefits and services they provide, but how they provide them that can impact how easy it is for families to reach self-sufficiency again.
Instead of making citizens stand in line for days to get help from government, taking time off of from other obligations that could help them get back to self-sufficiency, help them become self-sufficient in how they interact with you.
- Provide intuitive easy to use self-service tools that citizens can use at times and places where they can easily access online.
- Make available computers in public places for those that do not have a personal computer.
- Engage with volunteers and community-based organizations not just to hand out paper forms or perform manual data re-entry of returned applications, but to hold help times at these public computers so that citizens can learn to access your services online. These skills will also build confidence in those that are computer illiterate in a world where digital skills are more and more important. Your mission is to help citizens in need in a manner where one day they can flourish even when you and your agency are not in their lives anymore. One of the best experiences I ever had was when I gave my mom a laptop and taught her how to use email. She is now using email to connect with friends and get information off the web. Skills and confidence she would not have had if I just continued to help her only in-person when I went home for Christmas. (Sorry, this last bullet is a little long. It’s something I have strong opinions about…can you tell?)
Now here’s the kicker. Even though all the points I’ve brought up here help the citizen which is why you are ultimately in public service, they are also practical in these budget constrained times.
By making citizens more self-sufficient in how they interact with your agency, your staff can be freed from paper pushing and spend more time interacting with people in ways that technology can never replace. It’s the shift I like to call from “paper-time” to “face-time”.
I hear, it is in those moments where only the human-touch can suffice that we are able to feel the full satisfaction of what it means to be in public service. It is also in those precious interactions that the public you serve understand the value you and your agency provides. Let’s not make the last memory of in-person interactions with your agency be the ones we saw in videos of the fiasco in East Point, Georgia.