Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

December 2, 2012

Cocoon of government culture spurs lack of common-sense decisions

— I detest waiting in lines. As the minutes tick by I can think of nothing but the many other things I could be doing with my time — writing columns, editing copy, laying out editorial pages, walking my dogs, loading the dishwasher or doing laundry.

Certainly I don’t enjoy all these tasks, but they are things that must be accomplished on any given day. Thus waiting in line anywhere tends to annoy. And that’s why I don’t do Black Friday. Why subject myself to the crowds and the craziness for a $10 blender?

I love a deal but I love my sanity even more.

lll

In recent days, the subject of long lines has somehow morphed into conversations about cultural differences relating to customer service between government agencies and private-sector businesses.

Earlier this year I had to visit a state agency for a routine matter. I walked through the doors expecting delays and a long wait-time. That, in itself, is a giant red flag.

In the business world, customers coming in the door anticipating poor customer service would signal impending doom.

How can one stay open for business if customers are not happy?

lll

I had been in line for 20-plus minutes at the government office and the row of people behind me continued to grow. I was surprised by the number of customers, but even more shocked by the lackadaisical attitude of the people behind the counter.

Slow, slow and even more slow seemed to be the theme of the day.

I became antsy just watching from the sidelines. Why didn’t the employees move into high gear? Why didn’t they pick it up a notch to clear the lines and satisfy the customers’ needs?

Apparently, customer service wasn’t the key concern.

As more people jumped into the ever-growing line, I was shocked when one of the two women behind the counter nonchalantly closed her station to go on break.

I was flabbergasted. Who takes a break when there are 20-some customers waiting for service?

Is this how our state government conducts business?

I continued to wonder about the timing of the break as I waited in line. Was it the employee’s decision to leave the customers in limbo, or was she simply following orders and taking her break at a time mandated by her boss or another bureaucrat higher up the chain?

And, once again, I shook my head at the lack of common sense that seems to define government at all levels.

lll

Often the business world requires flexibility. The time one takes a lunch or dinner break can depend upon ringing phones and walk-in customers. At least that’s how it works in our world.

I think about lunchtime at the Daily Telegraph. It revolves around the number of people in the newsroom, as well as the volume of telephone calls and walk-in customers.

Lunch breaks can occur at noon, or 12:15ish, 12:30ish or 12:45ish — even later if chaos is ensuing in the community. For us, the time we take a break revolves around the news of the day and the customers in the office.

lll

Of course not all government agencies, and government employees, are the same.

On a visit to the Mercer County Courthouse once to pull some court documents, I had not anticipated the closing time of the Circuit Clerk’s Office. I assumed it was 5 p.m., in reality it was earlier.

Frantically, I attempted to flip through volumes of court documents on three different suspects, all the while eyeing the clock. The minutes ticked by as I scanned each page and requested copies of pertinent information.

It became obvious these particular criminals were hard core, and had spent quite a bit of time in multiple courtrooms for various offenses.

All too soon the closing hour came and the office door was shut. But to my surprise I was allowed to stay inside. The helpful clerk let me continue my quest through the mounds of paperwork while she stayed by my side to make copies.

It’s nice to find shining examples of great customer service buried within the layers of government bureaucracy.

lll

On Nov. 6, voters in Mercer County elected several businessmen to key local and state offices. My instinct tells me it was a good call.

Career politicians are often immersed in a cocoon of government culture. Decisions are never made quickly or efficiently. Instead, problems are studied, reports are written, meetings are held to discuss the problems, more reports are written and maybe, just maybe, after a few more meetings and studies, a decision will be made to allow government employees to use their own discretion about break time based on the line of customers in the office.

In most business environments, such as decision would be made by a supervisor in 15 seconds or less.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense.

Something we could use more of at all levels of government.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at  sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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