Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Efficiency in Government

I had a really interesting experience recently, in which I had the opportunity to interact with a federal agency. As the manager of a government agency, I often struggle with perceptions of the public regarding the level of customer service we provide. I receive complaints and comments periodically. Fortunately, they are not as frequent as they once were. 

One complaint I get is accessibility of staff. There are those who practice in our newer district offices, and they find they do not have personal access to the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims (OJCC) staff that they once had. There was a time when visitors to the office could wander about in staff work areas, meeting and greeting (distracting). That is no longer the configuration in most of our offices. The realities of the modern age have dictated that we relocate staff to secure areas. Currently, the former "open" configuration exists in only four of the District offices. And, the trend is away from the "open" option. So, there is less "dropping by" to ask a question or "fix" a problem. That is a downside, which many a "seasoned" practitioner has bent my ear about. 

Telephonic contact comes up periodically. There was a time when the phones in our offices literally "rang-off-the-hook." That has not been the case for several years. What changed? The e-JCC electronic filing platform and the OJCC website changed. There is news coming about the website, but that is for another day. But, essentially, the vast majority of attorney and adjuster and injured worker questions can now be answered online, and the need to call our offices has thus decreased. Did something get filed? Has the judge entered an order on _______? Is a mediation date set? All of these and more can be easily answered by checking the case online. Documents can be reviewed, and many questions answered. It is a self-service paradigm that is efficient and effective. 

And, we periodically hear from people who cannot adjust to this paradigm. They are frequently not represented. Some find computers challenging in a broad context. Others simply lack easy access to a computer or the Internet. They call us or send a letter. We respond to the best of our ability. We print documents and mail them out periodically to such customers.

The underlying theme of this Office should always be "you are not an interruption of our day, you are the purpose of our day." Without lawyers, workers, adjusters, paralegals, employers, there would just be no purpose in the OJCC existing.  

Back to the federal agency that led me down this path. As a volunteer, I filed a document with the federal government last year. The instructions on/for the form warned me that the government is very busy and that I should not expect a response before 90 days. It also admonished me not to contact the agency to check on status until that 90 days had passed. I complied, months passed. I heard nothing. In the meantime, I learned one of the organization officers had changed a business address. Unfortunately, the one we had used on the government form. 

After the 90 days, I scoured the Internet, and eventually found an agency phone number. My call was answered by a computer, "all of our representatives are helping other customers," and "the wait time is currently 15 minutes." I waited. Eventually (more than 15 minutes), I spoke to a very nice person who told me that the agency had approved my mailed request months before; a letter was mailed to (the address that had been changed). Could I get another copy of the letter? No. What could I get to prove agency compliance? The nice person told me that step one would be to file a change of address form. That was available online. Could I email that to them? No. She explained that the second step, after change of address was mailed and approved, would be to telephonically request a document similar to the agency's originally mailed document, called a "status letter," but I was assured that their original document could not be retrieved. 

I completed that change of address form and mailed it. I later called and asked for that "similar document." The phone representative this day actually said "please hold while I type that letter for you." Weeks passed, no document. I decided that somewhere in the wide world of the Internet there had to be a way to check on such filings. I spent some time searching various websites. I found a tool that would allow me to filing check status. No, it would not let me check the status of my volunteer organization, but it would let me download a 13MB spreadsheet listing all such volunteer organizations in the country, and I could then search that to see if we were listed. Better than nothing.

More searching led me to screen that allowed searching for approved organizations. This was similar to the OJCC "case search" function, in that various bits of information could be submitted, and the registration status could be verified. This resulted in an output screen with minimal information. It confirmed status literally by listing the name of the organization. The screen could be printed in the event that one might want to prove the organization's existence, but no access to any detail or documents was provided. 

This led me to another call. The wait time, coincidentally, was 15 minutes this time also. An equally nice representative eventually took my call. She offered to (again) provide me a "status" letter. She confirmed our new address, and asked me to hold "while I type that letter for you." She returned to the conversation and assured me it had been sent. Could they fax it or email it to me? No, their agency regulations precluded this. They are required to send documents only by U.S. Mail. 

Something led me to ask this nice lady about the the original document,. Remember, the original document that I had been told could not be retrieved? She was surprised by my recitation of my prior call. Of course that original document could be provided (relief!). Could she send it to me? No. That has to be requested in writing. Could I email them a request? No, in fact the written request for that document required the completion of a specific agency form. It can then be mailed. Any quicker process? Well, she suggested, why not fax it to the agency? I was pleased. Would I find the fax number on that form or the website? No, she would have to give me that fax number, did I have a pen handy?

So, I downloaded the form, to request the original document, and faxed it to the agency. Time will tell, but it has been two weeks now. I hopefully will soon receive the "status letter" she typed while we were on the phone. Likewise, hopefully my facsimile request for the "original document" will arrive on the right desk in the right department, and a copy of that original will be forthcoming soon as well.  

All of this made me reflect on our OJCC system. I am pleased that we provide public access to all OJCC orders on our website. If You want to know whether an order has been entered in a particular case, visit our case search function, find the case, and look through the docket. If you find the order you are after, you may simply print it, or save a PDF to your own file or computer. Users of the e-filing platform, e-jcc, can look at all of the filings, and retrieve a copy at their convenience. 

If you are more interested in a topic than a case, there is a function to search JCC trial orders at the top of our website. This allows you to search all of the OJCC trial orders for various terms and concepts in which you may be interested. It is too often forgotten. I have had to reiterate several times recently that those searches ALWAYS return only two responsive orders. It looks like this

The last line says "repeat the search with the omitted results included." Click on this and the full population of responsive orders is provided. Keep in mind that the OJCC has been part of the Division of Administrative Hearings for only 15 years. Orders from prior to October 1, 2001 may not be in our database. We made every effort to locate, scan and upload earlier trial orders as we progressed to paperless last decade, but no promises about pre 10.01.01 trial orders. I recently got a call from an attorney wanting help finding a pre-2001 order. We worked on queries on the phone together. Our research failed to locate it, or others on the specific topic. The fact is older orders are often less accessible and may be harder to find. 

Despite all of this automation, we still get calls. I still get calls. I am happy to get them. We are happy to be here for you. Our intention is to serve you and your needs. I think we are doing a better job of providing information and convenience than the federal agency described. If you disagree, and are frustrated with our operation, contact me. If you have an experience with our offices that makes you scratch your head, please contact me. First, I happy to help you. But more important, we can and should learn from our performance and your experience may be educational for us and could improve OJCC process.

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