Lessons from Your Friendly Neighborhood Public Service Employees

Much has been said and written about the stressful challenges imposed on commercial contact centers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one class of contact centers that has not gotten a lot of attention, and arguably has been more heavily impacted by the pandemic, are those that serve state and local governments.

Citizens are accustomed to interacting with municipal departments and local utilities in person. When the pandemic hit and personal contact with public-service employees all but disappeared, citizens rapidly switched to voice and data communications channels. Public-service contact centers were not staffed or equipped for this massive increase in contact volume. Additionally, they had to deal with educating the public about vaccines and conducting contact tracing.

Government agencies do not typically have the flexibility of for-profit entities to redeploy employees, alter shifts, accelerate training, expand work hours, and implement incentives to reward extra effort. This all sounds like a recipe for disaster, and there certainly were many instances of crashed websites and calls that did not get answered.

For example, less than 1 percent of Wisconsin residents who called the state's Department of Workforce Development call centers seeking unemployment insurance between March 15 and June 30 actually had their phone calls answered.

Taxpayers are customers too.

But over time, administrators were able to make needed changes, and service levels improved. In fact, the crisis tended to accelerate a movement that had been underway for many years. This is the trend toward adopting a customer-centric approach to responding to citizen queries.

Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Seattle are among the many metropolitan centers that regularly conduct customer satisfaction surveys. The notion that taxpayers are customers too is definitely gaining momentum.

To find out the reasons behind this, I spoke with two experts from Verint Systems: David Moody, vice president and general manager of the Engagement Management Professional Group, and Iain Daws, director of marketing. Both officials are heavily involved with the company's municipal markets outreach. Based on direct input from David and Iain, and some independent research, it is clear that three factors are instrumental in driving this trend:

1. Rising customer expectations: Social distancing and the closure of thousands of popular businesses forced a sharp acceleration in the trend toward e-commerce. The quick and courteous delivery of products, meals, and transportation demonstrated even among skeptics that digital models really do work. Simply said, the success of Amazon and other e-commerce companies raised expectations for the quality of public service, not just among citizens but among public-service employees as well.

2. Consolidation: The Federal Communications Commission has dedicated nine N-1-1 numbers for public service. Examples include travel information (511), public safety (911), and assistance in contacting specific departments (311). Cost savings from consolidation provides funding for investments in people and technology.

3. Politics: Mayors and county executives are starting to see superior service as essential to their reelection prospects.


Government contact centers face special challenges. While customer service representatives for commercial businesses can concentrate on a relatively small and discrete set of products or services, public-service agents have to respond to a vast variety of queries, everything from stray dogs to property tax disputes. Daws explained, "The public sector has a very broad range of procedures and delivery requirements that can add considerable complexity compared to the commercial sector."

Long-standing practices and union work rules can also limit managers' flexibility in creating work schedules. And it is a lot easier for taxpayers to talk to the manager. You are not likely to call Jeff Bezos if you are unhappy with Amazon, but you might very well call your local councilman if you are unhappy with the way your complaint about a property assessment was handled. Public-service agents understand this, which only adds to the pressure they were already feeling.


Depending on their size and mission, public-service contact centers can benefit from virtually all of the applications that make up the modern workforce engagement management suite. However, applications that specifically address processes are particularly valuable to public-service contact centers. Just about everything you try to accomplish when you reach a public-service contact center deals with processes. The processes take much more time than the interaction itself. Case in point: When you last visited your local department of motor vehicles, how much time did you spend waiting for work to get done compared to time actually speaking to a customer service representative?

Applications that have proved especially valuable for both public and private contact centers are knowledge management, case management, robotic process automation, and analytics.

Knowledge management does the following:

  • Enables staff to quickly and reliably find the answers to a wide range of questions, as well as procedural guidance, which is especially useful in relation to little-used processes.
  • Updates rapidly as new information becomes available and shares it with self-service channels too, ensuring consistency.
  • Helps make new recruits productive as soon as possible, since they do not have to learn everything before they start taking calls.

Case management does the following:

  • Allows all steps of both simple and complex processes to be configured, including integration to back-office systems for service fulfilment and updates.
  • Enables citizens to conduct many transactions online rather than speaking to an agent, and to receive automatic progress updates.
  • Allows representatives to quickly access case histories, speeding problem resolution and improving first-contact resolution.

Robotic process automation allows routine and common process steps to be automated, relieving agents of the need to carry out these steps, which can then reduce handle times and improve process adherence and compliance.

And lastly, desktop and process analytics captures the steps followed by an employee to complete a business process and provides analysis of systems involved, screens that must be accessed, and time taken to complete each action. This information is highly beneficial when re-configuring existing or modelling new processes as it can help reveal why some people perform certain steps more quickly than others. For example, have some employees developed shortcuts that can be adapted by others? Or are there redundant steps that can be eliminated altogether?

As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, both public and private contact centers can take some pride in the speed and agility they demonstrated in dealing with the crisis. Investments made in automating routine processes will continue to pay off in terms of dollar savings and improved customer satisfaction.

Dick Bucci is founder and chief analyst at Pelorus Associates.