Thursday, July 12, 2007

Two Cheers for Good Government

I needed my son's birth certificate right away and I couldn’t find it, so I took him to the local government office that dealt with those documents. As we drove into the city, I felt a sense of mild dread. I envisioned waiting endlessly in a long, impersonal queue, then dealing with a grim bureaucrat who would somehow prolong my frustration with slow, meticulous indifference. In fact, as I glanced at my watch while seeking a parking spot, I realized that I had really screwed up because the time was nearing noon, and I was certain that regardless of how many “customers” would be waiting for documents, government employees would shut down their operations for their convenient lunch at the stroke of 12. Sure enough, the queue snaked around the corridors, and sure enough, when the noon hour hit, one of the two windows slid shut. But wait! Amazingly, the other window stayed open. My goodness, someone in charge actually considered the needs of people who needed the services of government. Yes, our wait was exacerbated because only one window remained open, but as I explained to my son, in the “good old days” both windows would have clanged shut, leaving everyone outside stewing in frustration for at least an hour. It was a small improvement, but an important one. But wait, there’s more. As my son and I moved forward, we passed cushioned benches positioned at intervals for people to actually sit on, which we did. Somebody in charge actually thought about making the waiting period more comfortable. And then, to my shock, a real human being actually came out of the office and, with a smile, walked up and down the queue asking people if they had any questions about the forms or procedures. And he actually helped some people fill the forms out. And he loaned me a pen to make a correction on one of the questions. And he was friendly! Not only that, when I finally reached the window, even the people behind it were cheerful, and prompt, and helpful. And quick, since the computer readily spit out the birth certificate. Things worked. All of this is small stuff, to be sure. But all the little things that vendors do to make customers feel valued is what customers remember. Those little things changed my entire experience, as well as some of my more egregious stereotypes of government service. In fact, as I reflected upon our experience that day, I remembered that I had even saved time by being able to download the documents I needed to fill out at home. Another “little” customer service that mattered.I guess government is learning. I can’t give it three cheers yet, because that damn window closing at lunch time (the only time when many “customers” have the opportunity to break away from work) more than doubled my waiting time. But when I consider what “service” used to be like at City Hall, I think that two cheers is pretty darn good.


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