How about night and weekend customer service — in person?

Shouldn't in-person appointments and when they're available become part of agencies' thinking about improving customer experience?

“The government is like a restaurant that closes at dinnertime.” Thus spoke a long-retired federal executive, during the early years of the e-government movement. Why can’t the government follow the model of a New Jersey diner, open all the time for in person?

Federal managers realized that offering transactions online would, to some extent, let citizens do things when they wanted or could, and not according to government field office schedules.

Now people can access countless government services digitally. Just as you can buy a China-made garden hose from Amazon at 3 a.m., citizens can renew their passports, say, on Juneteenth or Sunday afternoon. You don’t print out the passport; it still requires approval, manufacturing and mailing.

Like it or not, though, in-person appointments remain a part of what the government must offer citizens. The IRS, Postal Service, Agriculture Department, Veterans Affairs, Social Security and parts of Homeland Security come to mind. Collectively they operate thousands of field locations of widely varying size.  Dramatically as digital services have grown, demand for the in-person experience won’t go away.

In fact, the two work together, if by “digital experience” you include telephone call center operators whose ability to help people is aided by access to comprehensive data about the caller. At the IRS, according to recent analysis by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), agency experts resolve some 30% of questions over the phone — so people avoid the need to make an appointment to come in.

In doing its analysis, TIGTA auditors visited a sample of what the IRS calls special Face-to-Face Saturday Help, posing as taxpayers. The monthly events took place at some 90 locations during the 2023 filing season (IRS repeated them during the most recent tax season). At some of the first-come, first-served events, TIGTA’s Carl Aley said, people waited as long as seven hours. In a few cases, the doors shut before the auditors could get service.

Answers they did get were generally accurate according to tax law. But the point is that the IRS has real demand for in-person during times when the average single or family taxpayer has time. Weekdays 9-5, the IRS lets people schedule appointments. In fiscal 2023, TIGTA said, the 363 Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) conducted 781,748 appointments. That may not match the billions and billions served by McDonald’s, but it keeps rising as the country grows and Congress convolutes the tax code.

As agencies work to modernize their online services and improve customer experience, why not rethink the in-person experience? Why not have regular evening and weekend hours for tax and Social Security questions? Why continue like the restaurant that closes when more people can get there?

You might ask, what about the workforce? Lots of people across the industries like night work, or are fine with weekends that might be a Tuesday and Wednesday or a Monday and Tuesday. 24/7 work occurs in some places throughout government already. Air traffic controllers or border patrol agents work around the clock, so why not those knowledge workers who deal with the public? Maybe not 24/7, but at least some time beyond 9-5.

Some states offer off-hours functions. Last year I needed a certain permit from a neighboring state. I made a 6:30 p.m. appointment. I’d applied and received affirmation online, but the permit required obtaining in-person.

It was a longer drive than I expected. Turned out the office was open to something like 7:30. When I arrived after dusk the building was locked. But the guard sensed why I was there, let me in, and directed me to a brightly-lit, first-floor office. A super friendly clerk took care of the matter literally in a matter of minutes. So that’s what’s possible.

Good for the IRS for trying Saturday drop-in tax help. The agency has also offered extended Tuesday and Thursday hours during tax season. It knows its demand signals.  This should become part of every in-person agency’s thinking.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Michele Sandiford

Tax form mistakes are 41 times more common on paper forms than through e-filing.

Source: The Motley Fool


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