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Call Waiting In D.C. Getting Information Out Of A Federal Bureaucrat Over The Phone Is Like Having A Tooth Pulled - Only A Lot Less Fun.

Thu., July 17, 1997

“In this agency, if you don’t respond to outside phone calls, it’s punishable by death and dismemberment,” explained a helpful bureaucrat. “On the other hand, the government doesn’t work in the summertime.”

Dilbert couldn’t have said it better.

Federal workers these days are, by and large, psyched to serve. They’ve got voice mail and fax-on-demand and more caller options than Detroit has car colors. But you can still go through hell trying to find somebody in Washington to answer a question.

More than 30 million callers last year simply gave up, according to one government estimate. And that’s considered an improvement.

To experience what callers endure, two Knight-Ridder reporters put away the press credentials that earn them special treatment. Guided only by information operators, a standard phone directory and the kindness of strangers in the bureaucracy, they started asking questions. Hard questions, but questions government agencies should be able to answer. Fifty of them. In 50 different federal offices. For two weeks.

The experience was like a meandering bus ride across America. There were some amazing people like Sue Ann Connaughton, a Transportation Department statistician in Boston. Connaughton responded definitively - in six minutes - to an inquiry about trends in freight traffic between Laredo, Texas, and Mexico.

And there was the Coast Guardsman, ready on the first 2 a.m. ring to take names and pursue fuel leakers on the Chesapeake Bay, had the caller actually known of any.

But there were some jerks, like the self-important General Accounting Office lawyer who, after ignoring a voice mail message for a week, explained blandly that “if questions are time-sensitive, we rely on callers to call back.”

Also unfortunately memorable were three Social Security Administration receptionists whose vocabularies consisted of the same three sentences: “How do you spell your name?” “Hold please,” and “I have no idea.”

The Clinton administration has figured out that treating callers well improves their attitude toward the federal government. Moreover, it’s three times more expensive to answer a letter than a phone inquiry, according to experts at the National Performance Review, Vice President Al Gore’s efficiency campaign.

The same administration, however, has downsized by 70,000 the number of clerical workers who used to, among other things, answer phones. In other words, Washington’s bureaucrats have bet that voice mail, e-mail, hot lines, personal computers and Web sites would offset the loss of about a third of their support staff.

Private industry has made much the same wager, but there are two differences. One is that government’s complexity more often defies automated answers. Knight-Ridder, for example, asked a lot of data-deep questions like “Who’s the biggest minority dry cleaner in Richmond, Va.?” and “How much federal mass transit aid does Honolulu get?” The range of inquiries to L.L. Bean is narrower.

Also, Washington did something smart companies don’t do, according to Daryle Gardner-Bonneau, a human factors engineer at Michigan State University who specializes in voice mail. Many government offices got rid of clerical help before voice mail had replaced them. That’s left many Washington callers with no choices when leaving a message isn’t good enough.

In fact, of the 10 questions that proved unanswerable, most involved unreturned voice mail messages. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., is on the case; he introduced a bill last month to require that callers to federal agencies be greeted by live operators.

That’s music to the ears of Mike Hancock, a senior Labor Department analyst with a dim view of telephonic innovations.

“Instead of saving time and expediting whatever the inquiry is, voice mail tends to put you in an endless loop where you never get a live voice or the information you’re after,” Hancock said.

“Menu options rarely work as intended either. You spend six or seven minutes on the phone only to discover you’re in the wrong place.”

So Hancock, after nimbly fielding a question about North Carolina farm laborers, explained that he still does things the old fashioned way: Jackie McFadden, his shared secretary, fields calls and takes messages. Hancock calls back promptly when he can help. For callers with squashed ears, it’s as refreshing as home brewed iced tea.

Of course, getting to the right office is the real trick. To make it easier, Gore’s reformers are clarifying listings in the phone directory’s blue government pages for callers in the “let me see” stage.

Progress has been reported. Passport information, for example, a multimillion-call concern, used to hide under the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Now it’s listed straightforwardly, under “P.”

But getting callers along lightly trafficked routes is not so easy. Try, for example, to go from the Commerce Department’s main number to a listing of U.S. companies cited for anti-Semitic policies in their Middle East operations.

“It isn’t a trade statistic,” said one baffled voice.

“It isn’t our job,” said another.

“Leave a message after the beep,” advised a bureaucrat who never called back.

“The mailbox of the Office of the Near East is full,” stated an unapologetic recorded voice.

It’s hard, in the end, to conclude that the service was substandard. Forty of 50 difficult questions got answered, the majority in three calls or less, not counting transfers in the course of a call. Most were answered in three hours.

In discussing phone service standards, National Performance Review experts said that the best private-sector companies aimed to answer inquiries in one call. They kept callers waiting under 15 seconds, and always offered live operators as an option to voice mail.

That’s hardly realistic for the federal government, however, and the reformers’ only suggestion of a government-wide standard is vague and qualitative. It begins: “When Americans reach for their telephone and dial a number, they expect to get an answer.”

Don’t seek more on this ringing declaration by calling a Washington, D.C., information operator and asking for the National Performance Review office’s phone number. It’s not in the book.

America’s capital is Dilbert’s world.

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