Adobe Public Sector Blog

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.

Enterprise Implementation

Join the discussion

  • By Dale Stemen - 1:38 PM on August 19, 2010  

    I work for an extremely large federal agency that often has direct contact with citizens. We have implemented a workgroup in our office that focuses on getting community groups/partners engaged in our online services. It has paid tremendous dividends as 40% of our traffic now is online for our office. Often these people still need to come in w/ documentation but we have setup a system whereby they get to the front of the line if they have used our online services. We reward the public for making us more efficient, and we help them be more efficient as a result.

    • By Loni Kao Stark - 10:12 PM on August 20, 2010  


      That is a fantastic idea that other agencies can easily implement right away. Thanks for sharing, do you have other tips?

      Your example actually points to a general best practice which is looking at the different channels of citizen interaction holistically, not just in silos.

      When a citizen uses an online channel and gets stuck, how do we “continue” this process through the phone or in-person channel instead of making a citizen start all over again?

      If we are able to accomplish this, then the citizen will not feel like they wasted time on our websites. Next time they need help, they will try going online as a first resort.

  • By Damian Pipkins - 8:23 PM on August 23, 2010  

    A combination of online and offline processes can reduce cost and boost effectiveness of programs. As pointed out in the article above there were 30,000 people in a line and only 13,000 applications filled out. Who were the other 17,000 people?

    How many of the 13,000 applications were filled out correctly? How much time will it take to re-enter the information from 13,000 applications and what is the error rate? How do you follow-up with these people? How many of the 13,000 will actually qualify for the program? Will the neediest individuals receive assistance and is there a priority?

    Government agencies operate as if it is 1930s when it is 2010 and the population and needs have changed significantly. The Housing Act of 1937 is still implemented as if it is 1937 and I am glad Adobe is working to bring government processes into the 21st century. The government could benefit from some Fortune 500 company know-how.

    • By Loni Kao Stark - 6:57 PM on August 24, 2010  

      Hi Damian –

      My understanding from reading several articles on the incident is that those wanting to apply either had family members coming along to help or dependents (children they couldn’t find alternative care for at the time the applications were available).

      Also, the 13,000 paper applications were just picked up to be completed at another time. This is what I know from the sources I have been following. It is a common scenario when you have paper forms since rarely does someone have all the information and supporting documents needed when they initially lay eyes on an application, especially in the middle of a shopping mall parking lot.

      I work with a lot of government agencies and there are many hard-working folks that want to improve the way agencies work. Such incidents as noted above are no fun for folks who chose government service because they do care about citizens.

      The common oversight I see when applying technologies is that we spend so much time figuring out how to organize the data and bits & bytes that we forget about the people.

      Here are some key questions any agency should be asking when looking to apply IT to their agency’s mission:

      How do front-line staff easily and intuitively get to the information they need without swiveling between multiple arcane legacy systems?

      How do citizens who need access to help become self-sufficient in using our agency’s websites to apply for services? (How do we make sites intuitive and rich in the capabilities that matter to the quality of life of families in our community?)

      Finally, how do we all as taxpayers understand how what we pay impacts the quality of the government services around us…without having to wade through streams of numbers and being a forensic accountant?

      I think the questions you asked Damian are also good ones. They need to be front and center in any solution that is built.

      How do we align all our resources (people, process, policy, technology) all to the common agency mission?