August 24, 2011 1:02:00 PM
Trying to get information from a government agency can feel like being stuck in a maze that doesn''t have an exit. First, there''s the struggle to get someone to answer the phone. Even if the agency is supposed to be open, your call may strangely go unanswered.
When the phone is answered, the initial person usually can''t answer a question or provide any information. They inevitably transfer you to a person who is inevitably not in his or her office; at which point the call goes to voicemail and the person kindly tells you to leave a message and promises to return your call. Based on my experiences, though, don''t bet on that callback.
Say you get tired of waiting and decide to go the agency during your lunch break. Unfortunately, certain agencies are closed then or the only person who can help you is at their lunch break, so even though that''s the most convenient (or only) time for you during the day, you''re out of luck.
Should you be lucky enough to get in touch with the government official, don''t be surprised if he or she can''t answer your question or give you the necessary information. That may not be in his or her department, or the agent may not be able to help you without a document or form from another agency. You may want to scream after learning this, but don''t - Hell has no fury like a government agent scorned.
In fact, before I become public enemy number one, let me be clear: this is not intended to be an attack on pubic workers. Many work for less than they could on the private market and do a commendable job with the resources at their disposal. But, I do think government officials should put more emphasis on customer service and public relations. This is because most people form an opinion about the government partially based on their contact with government officials.
With the different levels of government, at some point every citizen has an interaction with a government agency. Should the person struggle to get their questions answered or get transferred around several times or have to leave several messages - none of which are returned - that person is much more likely to build a tent in the anti-government camp. They''ll think their hard earned tax dollars are not respected and resent the people receiving them. They''ll wonder how they can trust the government with trillions of dollars when it can''t be trusted to return a call.
On the other hand, if the interactions go well; if the agency is de-compartmentalized so people don''t have to rely on one or two people for information; if the lunch breaks are staggered to make sure the phone is always answered, if people are always treated like customers rather than as inconveniences, then people may start to feel better about their government.
This doesn''t mean they''ll immediately pull out their wallet and want to pay more taxes, but they''ll be much more confident that the government is effective and therefore much less concerned that their tax dollars are wasted. And, at a time when public distrust of government is at historic highs, that''s at least a step in the right direction.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.