Customers of the Department of Education (ED)--State Education Agencies (SEAs), Local Education Agencies (LEAs), community-based organizations (CBOs), Native American tribal governments, colleges and universities, individuals, and others--should have reasonably easy access to complete information on the department's programs, contracts, availability of funds, and other education resources. This information will allow customers to make the most effective use of their time and resources, to find the best match between their functional capabilities and ED programs, and to access ED's educational resources.
Currently, a potential applicant must contact multiple sources to access information on individual programs and obtain application information and forms. ED lists nearly 230 programs in its Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs. The Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) also lists the department's programs, along with other federally funded domestic programs. In fact, ED's Guide directs potential applicants to the CFDA for "a more detailed description of each program." In addition, the Federal Register prints, at various points in the grants process, regulations, priority area announcements, and application deadline information related to these programs. For some programs, a potential applicant can get the appropriate application form in the Federal Register, while for other programs, a potential applicant must call the department. Under these circumstances, a potential applicant might not identify the programs that best match its capabilities and the populations it serves.
Within the department, program and staff office personnel spend time responding to inquiries from the public regarding each of these programs. Customer complaints of multiple telephone transfers also indicate that department personnel answering telephone inquiries frequently do not know who should handle calls pertaining to certain inquiries.
From the customer's point of view, this creates an image of a department that does not know who has information about its own programs. To make matters worse, a card distributed by the Office of Education Research and Information has five different telephone numbers at the Department of Education to call for information. The five different telephone numbers only pertain to five specific areas of interest within the department. If customers want to find out something other than the items listed on the card, they have to call one of the numbers listed and ask for help finding the appropriate office, or start from scratch. Also, the phone numbers do not simplify the search if the caller does not know in advance which office he or she needs.
The department has a growing number of on-line services available, some open to limited audiences, others open to the public. These on- line services operate out of different offices within the department, and there is no overall strategy for determining what information needs to be available and how best to provide that information to the department's customers. The department recently instituted an on-line bulletin board (ED Board) with limited grant and contract information. The bulletin board has a limited database of program information that a potential applicant can search by program office, Federal Register announcement publishing date, or current availability. However, a potential applicant cannot search the database by key words related to eligibility criteria. The department is also developing a system that is intended to disseminate educational information to teachers, administrators, parents, librarians, and community members. This system will contain four prototype databases:
--- Programs and Practices,
--- Funding Opportunities,
--- Sources of Help, and
--- Research Results.(1)
A third system, Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), provides access to the largest education database in the world.
The services mentioned above--coupled with a growing number of services available through the private sector to inform the public, businesses, and governments about the grants and contracts award process--make it apparent that the department needs to implement a unified information retrieval system for its many customers. The Texas Comptroller's Office has established a comprehensive computerized directory of state and federal grants that anyone in the nation with a computer and a telephone modem can use to search for possible sources of funds. This system was built in-house, using off- the-shelf software, and allows users to look up information on 2,000 grants as well as send electronic mail messages.(2) Many other government agencies are moving to this technology to make their services more easily accessible.
1. The Department of Education should create an on-line database with multiple modem access capability which will allow potential applicants to obtain information on available grants, fellowships, and student aid through a single contact.
This database could also be used to disseminate information about important topics in education, research findings, and best practices. If the database software is not capable of handling the volume of information anticipated to be put on-line, it could serve as a gateway to one or more other databases (such as ERIC), thereby simplifying access to information.
As part of the on-line database, the department also should maintain an up-to-date file with specific names, phone numbers, and addresses to contact for information on a specific topic, grant, or issue. Once all ED employees are connected by a local area network, this list of contacts could be contained in a database. Anyone answering a call coming into ED could search the database to find the name and phone number of the appropriate person to whom the call should be referred. In case of a planned absence from work, the designated contact could enter the name of an alternate contact directly into the database.
2. The Department of Education should establish a single phone number that anyone desiring information or forms could call to receive assistance.
This will involve setting up an office that would handle phone calls, simple tasks such as mailing out grant applications, and forwarding calls that require more in-depth knowledge. This approach is patterned after services provided by such companies as General Electric, which offers one toll-free number to help customers with questions about its products.
Since the department does not know how many telephone calls it receives, it is impossible to determine the exact size of the staff needed to handle this centralized help line. As a result, the size of the office will have to be adjusted based on the actual number of calls received.
Should the department institute such changes, a number of parties would benefit. A potential applicant for ED funds would only need to make one contact with the department to receive information on ED programs. At this time, the department does not count the number of phone calls or written inquiries it receives, but each year it receives approximately 30,000 applications and mails 1 million applications to potential applicants. The recommended changes should benefit these applicants and others who did not apply or could not apply because they did not get timely or proper information.
These actions would put the department in the forefront of customer service within the federal government. The technology needed to implement the suggested improvements is readily available and widely used in private industry as well as many state and local governments. The department could serve as a pilot project for the entire federal government in providing first-rate customer assistance. The system could be expanded at a later point to include electronic transmission of grant applications and instructions for completion of applications.
The department would incur the cost of developing the database software, purchasing the necessary communications and computer equipment, providing training, and maintaining the database and equipment, as well as personnel salaries for staffing the clearinghouse. Users would be required to pay their own long distance fees. Program offices would experience an increased availability of program staff time currently spent on answering public inquiries that the clearinghouse would now answer.
Budget Authority (BA) and Outlays (Dollars in Millions) *************************************************************** Fiscal Year 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 Total ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ BA 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 1.8 Outlays 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 1.8 Change in FTEs 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
1. See U.S. Department of Education, "Sources of Materials and Research about Teaching and Learning for Improving Nationwide Education," undated. (Information paper.)
2. Texas State Comptroller's Office, "Comptroller's Free Computerized Bulletin Board Now Offers A Directory of Available Grants and Loans," Austin, Texas, May 5, 1993. (Press release.)
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