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INFORMATION AGE COULD MAKE GOVERNMENT A LOT MORE HELPFUL

SHARE INFORMATION AGE COULD MAKE GOVERNMENT A LOT MORE HELPFUL

FAR TOO OFTEN, citizens are confused and inconvenienced by government. Let's see now, is that something for city hall, or is it a federal problem? Or maybe something for that new county building near the mall? No matter where they turn, it seems they have come to the wrong place or will have to come back later.

Why can't government offer convenient, one-stop service? If credit card problems can be resolved with one phone call, why not tax problems? Shouldn't the same computer networking that enables "anytime, anywhere" private services also work for government?Computer indexing and interactivity make it much easier to find the information you need for the next step of whatever problem you're working on. Indexing and interactivity make it possible for computer-supported government workers to handle a wider range of problems at a given quality level than those without computer support.

In general, it seems desirable to use information technologies to move in the direction of one-stop service - but perhaps not all the way. After all, we don't want postal clerks offering advice on brain surgery. And the widespread information-sharing raises heightened concerns about privacy.

So how far should we go? Should we offer a broader range of services through neighborhood-based institutions such as libraries and schools? Should we pass laws to mandate the consolidated design and delivery of income support and/or family services?

These and other questions were examined recently at a Harvard workshop involving leading-edge public- and private-sector practitioners. The top three recommendations that emerged were:

Customer analysis: The goal should be customer service, not "one-stop" per se. "Putting customers first" requires that those customers be involved much more actively in the evaluation and design of governmental services.

Information access: While some elements of government service require interaction with things that are clearly tangible - garbage collection, health examinations - others can be handled through information exchange alone - finding out how to get an old refrigerator disposed of, for example, or whether your symptoms require you to come in and see a doctor.

Self-service: Because self-service is much more cost-effective than face-to-face service, it should be offered wherever feasible. Successful self-service, however, will require careful interface design and monitoring and will depend on customers finding it at least as easy to use as traditional face-to-face services. Remember that it took more than a decade for sizable portions of the population to learn to use bank ATMs.

One approach to implementing these recommendations is "virtual" one-stop service - that is, offering self- and remote-service options that look like one-stop but where the actual transaction may involve a number of electronic hand-offs over telephone or computer networks.