Like lighthouses, government silos prove durable

Better government service is an always-moving target.

About to hit that magic birthday, I’m getting all sorts of advice. “Sign up now! Don’t wait or you’ll pay a penalty! What’s your Part B gonna be?”

Yes, Medicare. The basic rule is, you must sign up  during a six-month window with your birthday in the middle, or else you pay a premium penalty until death doth you part. But why should anyone have to sign up? The federal government knows when I was born, that I’m still alive, where I live, and all my unique identifiers.

This is the kind of non-existent integration often cited as keeping the government back from giving totally modern service to citizens. Ditto for the whole tax “filing” process, in which people spend billions and billions of hours or pay billions and billions of dollars to tax preparers to send the IRS data it already has.

Just out this morning, research conducted by Ernst & Young and the Partnership for Public Service states, “Success increasingly depends on agencies working together, particularly where missions and constituencies overlap.” This isn’t a new insight, and the theme of the report — how the government can improve to where service matches the best of the private sector — has been Topic A for good-government groups for decades. What is new here is the addition of data, analytics and artificial intelligence as ingredients to improve or totally rethink process.

You’ll also find a needed reminder on just how “stovepiped” or “siloed” the government remains.

The report quotes Chief Statistician Nancy Potok, pointing out that a simple two-way data sharing agreement between two agencies can itself take a year to hammer out. Now, these types of agreements should be executed with care. But barring some statutory ban on sharing, the process shows both the distrust that often exists between agencies and trepidation over what could go wrong.

Sometimes sheer inertia keeps agencies from offering best-in-class service. I’m dealing with an agency now, seeking a special permit. So far the customer service has been exemplary. Two polite and earnest people called me to ask for clarifications on the forms I sent in. But the basic process integration isn’t there. The required multi-page form is a PDF you can fill out online. But you’ve got to download, print and mail it to an office in D.C. From there, someone sends it to another office where the deciders work.

While the government has plenty of work to do, it also has many pockets of progress. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the report notes, has developed a platform called myUSCIS which, in the agency’s words, “makes immigration simpler.”

Not all customer service has to start online. I spoke with Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Paul Lawrence the other day. His staff at the Veterans Benefits Administration has started calling newly-minted veterans to tell them what products and services are available to them now. Lawrence said many call recipients are surprised, having been only vaguely aware of VA and what it offers.

The service question operates on two levels. The more basic is how to do existing processes better. Here the IRS has made a lot of progress, since the first electronic filing project got underway during the Clinton administration. More advanced would be a totally new process that doesn’t require filing at all. This couldn’t work for all taxpayers, but imagine the cost and effort saved if  a few tens of millions could simply receive a refund or an invoice. That’s what people mean when they say “transforming government.”

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