The State Worker

The State Worker: Is self-serve government the answer?

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

The confusing complaint letter went to UC Berkeley and landed on labor relations representative Joyce Harlan’s desk. An employee had told the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing that the university had discriminated against him.

“On page 2 of the complaint,” Harlan said in a written response on March 19 to the department, which issued the letter, “complainant states that he experienced ‘discrimination, harassment, retaliation’ because of his ‘disability, other.’ The University has no idea what complainant means by ‘other.’ ”

Another page asked why the employee was alleging discrimination, but “that section of the charge is blank,” Harlan wrote, and the information was so poor “as to make a response impossible.”

Harlan, who did not return a call for comment, was on the receiving end of Fair Employment’s Houdini computer system, which automates certain aspects of job and housing discrimination complaints. Department officials say they have since tweaked the system to correct similar misunderstandings.

Still, the episode illustrates a hazard in the United States of Self Service, where face-to-face government transactions are increasingly becoming a Web affair.

In California, state agencies from the DMV to the Employment Development Department to the Board of Registered Nursing have shifted to online services that put more responsibility on the user to apply for services or pay fees via the Internet.

Government is catering to a tech-savvy culture that pumps its own gas and scans its own bar codes in the checkout line. The business model’s bureaucratic allure: Fewer people can process more car registrations, more unemployment claims, more license applications. It’s cheaper when it works right.

But it’s tricky, says management consultant Paul Epstein, because much of what government does requires expertise that can’t be passed off on just anyone. And the winners will be keenly focused on doable transactions, resistant to political pressure to launch too quickly. The losers? Unfocused and rushed, often by politically imposed deadlines (see:

His mantra, picked up 35 years ago when he was a federal employee: Do less better.

“Government often spreads itself too thin,” Epstein said in a telephone interview from his New York offices. “And then we skimp on what we do.”

So instead of launching four new computer systems, a state might launch three and spread the money from the fourth around. Or upgrade smaller systems to build momentum for larger projects.

Bad projects lose future savings, miss revenue from more efficient collections, damage reputations, kill morale and erode further innovation.

Putting some of that in the hands of the public is always going to be risky, Epstein said, “and the nature of government pushes a tendency to not innovate. But there’s a risk to not innovating, too.”

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