Beth Childs lives in the shadow of the government -- literally. Her neat, cozy, second-story apartment opens onto a porch overlooking a federal office building in Sacramento. They are separated only by a hedge of white flowering oleander, the kind found in the median strips of the California freeways. Beth has lived there for eight years with her husband Bill, a drug and alcohol counselor in a nearby high school, and Sydney, her junior high-aged daughter. Sydney has recently taken up playing the flute, following in the footsteps of her self-taught mother.
"The government is a rude neighbor," Beth complains mildly. "They get out here sometimes on Sunday mornings around 7:00 making all kinds of noise with leaf blowers and garbage trucks. But I guess they might feel the same way about us, considering Fred." Fred is their gray cat -- they also have a calico. "Fred's learned how to open the federal building's electronic doors, and he goes into the cafeteria kitchen. The health inspector caught him in there once. Caused quite a stir." Beth's smile shows that Fred is making up for the Sunday morning noise. Being the government's neighbor is not what made her feel "dazed and confused, completely disoriented" as she wrote in a recent letter. That came from one of the times she visited a government office, when she needed something only the government could supply.
"My twin sister, Tami, just adopted a Russian baby while she and her husband were living in Belgium. The baby's named Amy, and she's absolutely beautiful. Tami had to fill out lots of forms in Russian, Flemish, and French. At the last minute, Tami realized she needed a form in English from INS -- the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. It's just a one-page form -- a single piece of green paper. I offered to pick the form up at the INS office."
The INS office is in a nondescript concrete and smoked glass building on J Street, one of the main drags in Sacramento. Its address is the only thing printed on the facade of the building, 7-Eleven. But it is no convenience store.
"There was a sign on the wall that said the capacity was 250, but there had to be 500 people in there. I finally figured out I was supposed to take a number. But there were different windows, and there were different numbers and a different number dispenser for each window. One was for forms, but I wasn't sure which one I needed so I took a number for the information' window. There was a sign on the window that said, Now Serving 143.' My ticket was number 327 and it said right on the ticket there would be a 72-minute wait. So I went out and had some lunch and bought a book. When I got back almost an hour later, the Now Serving' sign said 145 -- I had only advanced by two.
"I decided to skip the information' window and took a numbered ticket from the forms' window dispenser. It was number 79 and the ticket said I would only have a two-minute wait. Three and a half hours later, I was getting near the window. The reason it was so slow was that clerk kept getting interrupted with questions from people who were dropping appointment forms in a box right by his window. I was impressed by the number of different languages he spoke, and he seemed rude in every one of them. Finally, the clerk had called number 75, so a couple others and I moved up close to the window. Then the lighted sign over the window changed from number 75 to 320! They had switched from forms' to information.' When we protested, the clerk snapped that he had to do what his supervisor told him, and that he would switch back to forms in 40 minutes.
"With that, he called out number 320, but no one showed. After a second call and no answer, he went to 321 and a young woman stepped up to the window. Well, an elderly woman with 320 had been struggling through the crowd and finally made it. In broken English, she tried to explain that she couldn't get to the window in time. The clerk reprimanded the old woman and refused to help her until she had turned around and apologized to woman number 321. He was really on a power trip.
"I was so mad that I went to a pay-phone in the back of the waiting room to call someone in charge. I got put on hold. I was on hold long enough that the window switched back to dispensing forms. So I hung up and got back in line. When I got to the counter, the clerk said Well now, that wasn't so bad, was it?' I had waited a total of five hours. All that time, I could see the forms on the shelf behind the clerk. Why did I have to go through that? He wouldn't even give me two copies of the form in case Tami made a mistake. To get another copy, I would have had to come back another day and wait in line again."
Beth's bad experience at the INS office happened less than a year ago, but even then INS recognized they had problems and was doing something about it. Throughout the country, the agency is beginning to put customers first. For example, they have a new easy way to get forms. Customers can dial 1-800-870-3676 and ask for what they need. In a week or so, the forms come in the mail.
But that's not all. INS has designated two offices -- one in Detroit and one in El Paso -- as "reinvention labs," where the workers can try out their own new ideas to improve customer service in ways that all INS offices will be using soon. And elsewhere throughout the country, INS's new attitude is catching on. Seven districts are undergoing intensive customer relations training and are running a series of customer focus groups. Incidentally, that same El Paso office recently processed more than 14,000 applications for citizenship within a two-month period; over 10,000 aspirants became new citizens in the El Paso District alone between July 3 and August 30, 1996!
Beth Childs' experience with INS wasn't what left her "dazed and confused, completely disoriented by what had just happened." It was a more recent and more unusual encounter with government that dazed Beth -- this one on February 22, 1996. Beth Childs gave her daughter an extra hug as she left for school that day. This time Beth was ready for the long, unpleasant journey ahead. She had made all the plans others make when they go out of town on business for an indefinite stay. Her best friend had agreed to pick up Sydney after school. Not knowing when she would return, Beth wore comfortable, casual clothes and packed her cross-stitching.
To prepare herself psychologically, she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. She lowered her expectations. She did not expect things to run smoothly or efficiently. Prepared for the humiliation and frustration she had experienced before, Beth drove away to face the government again -- this time, the Social Security Administration.
When Beth entered the Social Security office on Fulton Avenue in Sacramento that day, she was shocked. She expected an office filled with long lines of people with screaming children. She wondered if she had gone to the wrong building. The place was quiet. The clerks were smiling. As Beth remembers it, "A strange vortex opened up at the Social Security office and bureaucracy was suspended. I was in shock. I was totally blown away by the service I received. Everybody was just so nice. They almost offered to carry my bags. I felt like they were fanning me with feathers while I filled out this form." Beth was so moved by her experience that she wrote the following letter:
Beth is not the only one who has a new perspective on government. Something similar happened when Beth's twin sister, Tami, brought newly adopted Amy home to the United States this past July. "We got into Logan Airport in Boston at 5:30 in the evening," Tami explains. "Amy was still on European time -- almost midnight -- so she was a bit cranky. When we got to the Immigration counter, we showed the man Amy's Russian passport and her application for citizenship you know, to get her green card. He told us that the photo on her application was too small. I thought, oh boy, here we go.' But he was so upbeat and friendly. He had a camera in his office, he took Amy's picture, and gave us the right size. Then he noticed that our address on the application was a post office box -- we'd been living overseas. He said we'd need a street address to get Amy's green card in the mail. I couldn't remember my parents' ZIP code in Maine, so he asked me their phone number, picked up his phone, and called them. He let me chat a minute to let them know we were safe and sound, got the ZIP code, and sent us merrily on our way. As we left, he called out: Your tax dollars at work.'"
They certainly are your dollars, and that certainly is how government should work. Thanks to strong leadership from President Clinton and the hard work of federal employees who have been wanting a chance to do this all along, government is beginning to serve the people better.