Animal shelters, jury duty, code compliance – you name it – we all need to contact the government now and then. You might expect that locating the right bureaucrat would be relatively easy. A phone call. Some mouse clicks. But our admittedly unscientific assessment delivered these decidedly mixed results: Seattle is holding up its end of the bargain, King County is trying, Olympia has its work cut out.
This appraisal stems from a look at what’s available through each level of government’s unified “go to” online directory, as well as other means of accessing customer service.
The state was in the digital vanguard when it pioneered an electronic version in 1994. But it has slipped since then. To save money, four years ago it quit printing its hefty “SCAN” (State Controlled Area Network) phone book, which was hit-and-miss for email addresses. Disappointingly, SCAN’s online version lacks email info for more than six out of 10 names.
It turns out state agencies are under no obligation to upload employee information. Essentially, each department makes up its own policy regarding what details to provide.
David Brummel is planning, performance and policy administrator with the Consolidated Technology Services, the agency that technologically supports the directory. He is “well aware of the (existing directory’s) limitations and challenges.”
He knows of no “statewide policy or procedure requiring them to put employee information into the directory.” As a result, a significant number have apparently opted out, though Brummel noted some departments maintain a separate set of contacts on their individual websites.
Not counting higher-education staffers, the state employs about 59,000 people. Yet the online directory totals roughly 36,000 names, among which about 14,000 (just shy of 39 percent) include emails.
“In open and transparent government, the more information you have about how to contact the providers of governmental services is a good thing,” Brummel acknowledged. “I don’t know why some of the entries in dial.wa.gov have email addresses and some don’t.”
Compared to the state, Seattle’s approach is downright progressive. Bill Schrier, the city’s former chief technology officer, recalled that years ago his office consulted with other department directors on whom should be listed in the city directory.
“We agreed, with Mayor Nickels’ blessing, to put everything up — email addresses, internal phone numbers, mail stops, addresses, the works,” recounted Schrier, who served as CTO for about a decade until he left the job last year. “I am virtually certain there is/was no policy created on this. We just made the decision since the info is all subject to public disclosure anyway, and we already had it in the internal database.
“The one exception — which still stands today, I think — is many police officers and firefighters.”
Search results for the state directory are spotty. Credit: dial.wa.gov
One factor that went into the decision to exempt first responders was the variability of their hours and working locations. Most patrol officers, for example, are in the field with no desk or phone, and firefighters’ shifts and stations also change frequently. Schrier noted there are plenty of online contacts for the police department.
Asked to comment about officer exclusions, Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle-based communications and media attorney, said government may choose to exempt such contact info from a directory, but would be obliged to release it if pressed under the state’s public disclosure law. Earl-Hubbard was part of a legal team that successfully challenged the King County Sheriff’s decision to withhold the information on officers’ full names and salary information that was being sought by operators of controversial websites critical of police.
Meantime, of the city’s roughly 10,000 employees, approximately 7,000 appear in the directory, according to Erin Devoto, the city’s current CTO. She noted that not all employees have phones, and some departments have designated contacts to reach other employees.
In King County, convenient and effective access to public officials and services is a work in progress. Of the county’s roughly 13,000 employees, about 7,000 (54 percent) are listed. Most entries include emails, according to Terra Strouhal, spokeswoman for the King County Department of Information Technology.
Asked about the overall participation level, Strouhal noted that in early 2002, then-King County Executive Ron Sims signed an executive order directing that all departments “fully participate in the [online] Directory by submitting and updating employee and group contact information.” An exception was carved out for employees for whom listing such information “would seriously and substantially compromise their work or safety.”
In addition, Sims’ order covers only executive branch employees, meaning those who work for departments headed by separately elected officials — such as the sheriff, judges, and council members — are not bound by it. Also, said Stouhal, a significant number of county employees, including custodians, drivers and equipment operators, aren’t listed simply because they don’t have desk jobs.
The county is working to develop what she termed the “next evolution” of the online directory, a 311 dial-in system that would serve as a service center with a “no wrong door” philosophy. Under this ideal scenario, even citizens with no clue about which government agency they needed would get help by simply phoning or emailing to explain what they’re after.
As yet there’s no funding for this vision, but Natasha Jones, the county’s customer-service director, said the message she is trying to impress on her staff is that when citizens call county government (at 206.296.0100) looking for help, “it’s not sufficient to say ‘That’s not my job.’ ”
Jones said she was brought aboard because too many residents looking for answers on issues ranging from jury duty to property taxes got so frustrated they started hammering County Executive Dow Constantine’s office. The county also offers a “contact us” email link on its main web page and is working to highlight access to customer service as part of a web redesign.
In addition, it has implemented an “alert” subscription service that can ping users via email, wireless number or social media with information on specific interests they register for, including Metro, Public Health and parks and trails.
Over at the city, a 311 system run by the Customer Service Bureau (CSB) has been in effect since December 2011, though it’s not the full-blown, extended-hours service former Mayor Greg Nickels outlined back in 2007.
The City Council didn’t go for that 2007 plan, but it did support a “customer relationship management” system, said Katherine Schubert-Knapp, spokeswoman for the Finances and Administrative Services Department. The system includes an online service request form that allows constituents to submit — and the city to track — requests for service, inquiries and complaints. Customers who provide contact info can track the status of their inquiries. The city also recently added a “Find It, Fix It” smartphone app for service requests.
Interestingly, new technology can interfere with as well as advance the cause.
To wit: Seattleites who dial 311 between 8 a.m. and 5 pm, Monday through Friday reach agents who answer questions directly or transfer them to the appropriate department. Dialing 311 works great from traditional wired phones. But the shortcut fails with Internet-based phones, which are generally incapable of recognizing specific locations the way traditional phones do. To get routed correctly, the system must be able to distinguish, for example, between 311 dialed in Seattle vs. 311 dialed in Denver. Nor does dialing 311 work on all cells. (The workaround? Dial the CSB at 206-684-CITY. )
County officials say they are upgrading their phone system and hope to work with the city to build a regional 311 call center.
As this story was being prepared, Amazon unveiled its latest Kindle lineup, which includes a “Mayday” button, available 24/7, which governments might want to consider emulating. Touch the button and within 15 seconds a headset-clad “tech advisor” is supposed to appear in a small video box, ready to patiently answer all your questions. We can dream, can’t we?