Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, April 27, 2009.]

This post is not about a completely new idea, at least not for readers of this blog. It is a continuation and reinforcement of an earlier post, titled “Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other”, in which I described the idea of government leaders facilitating citizen collaboration as a way of delivering at least the first line of public services. We’re not talking about just getting citizen “input”, but instead this is about creating citizen action.

The reason for this posting is an article in today’s New York Times Business Section,titled “Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer.” It describes the way that Verizon uses unpaid volunteers to supply customer service —

If you remember the last post, this isn’t new. Among other companies, ATT has done the same thing for awhile at But the article describes in some detail how Verizon runs this service and what motivates the minority of volunteers who are willing stand up and become leaders of the volunteer community. 

In government, we would call these people auxiliary deputies in a police force or doyennes in a special park.As I noted before, what these private companies have learned is that people who do not work for the company are often more credible with other customers than employees. 

When these companies use these public forums, of course, they need to have a certain tolerance for criticism. Looked at the right way, though, this criticism is a form of free market research and can alert a company early to a brewing problem before that problem gets completely out of hand. That same logic applies to government. 

Given the declining fiscal outlook for the next few years, citizen collaboration may be the only way that some public services can be adequately sustained in the future. I suppose that Verizon, which arguably does not have the greatest reputation for customer service, feels that it cannot do any worse with volunteers. That Verizon can get people to do this is a marvel to me. It should be much easier in the public sector, since people have a direct interest in the success of their community and government.

And government can start with some basic services where the only necessary expertise is having gone through the process before. So, a senior who has gone through the process of applying for “meals on wheels” or para-transit can help a senior who hasn’t done so yet. Similarly, a parent with older kids can be the one who can explain how to another parent with younger kids how to enroll for Parks Department programs. 

What examples can you add to this list? Please write to me at

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 


Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 2, 2009.  Since then, I have worked with Oakland County, Michigan to put in place a program like this.  More on that in a later blog post.]

When computers were introduced into white-collar businesses a couple of decades ago, one of the first effects that people noticed was that companies began to shrink the ranks of middle management. Middle managers, whose major job was collecting, summarizing and reporting data to higher management, were no longer needed once the computers could do the same thing, only faster. The very highest management, the CEO, essentially could get direct reports from the lowest person in the hierarchy. This phenomenon was labeled ”disintermediation” because it eliminated the intermediary.

With the presence of personal computers and Internet connections in the majority of American homes, there is now the potential to similarly reduce some of the barriers between you (the chief elected official) and the average citizen. 

Traditionally, the top officials of government would almost always deliver public services through paid civil service staff or the equivalent paid staff in non-profit agencies or private companies through outsourcing contracts. The staff is the intermediary between you and the public.

Doing things this way goes beyond the various forms of citizen suggestions that some government websites offer today – elected officials can actually facilitate the creation of public services by enabling citizens to help each other. 

In the current recession, some leaders will immediately think of the potential cost savings that can occur when shifting some public services from paid staff to volunteer citizens. But an even bigger and longer lasting problem is the pending retirement of the baby boomers, who account for a large fraction of government workers. How will they be replaced? Should their positions be filled or should we look for new ways to deliver services?

The Internet connects citizens to each other and the government; the software technology is available. The missing piece is the leadership to put this new approach in place. 

What kind of services might you start with? One good way to start is the first line of services – for example, finding out how to get a park pass or sign up for ”meals on wheels”. This kind of service does not require years of specialized experience, but just having gone through the process. One slightly more experienced citizen can help another inexperienced citizen with such information. 

If you’re concerned about the quality of information, you can have paid staff monitor the discussions -but that will take considerably less staff than having them answer all of the questions to begin with. The paid staff can then be focused on the more complex problems that do, in fact, require their special skills and background.

And there are three other benefits to this approach. First, it draws more people into the process of governing – voters who might feel more a part of your team or, at least, have a better understanding of what your government deals with. 

Second, when the private sector has set up similar mutual support for its customers, they found that the customers preferred this way of solving problems. Also, many customers felt that someone who was not a paid staff member of the company was more credible. 

Third, although there can be criticisms of the government on these sites, that acts as an early warning system to you as the head of the government. Without this direct citizen support, it might take much longer for you to learn about a festering problem in the bureaucracy, which makes it that much more difficult to fix the problem.

For some examples of how private companies have done this, take a look at these websites:

While these sites mostly use text, it is also possible for citizens to talk to each other as well. And, as you develop more experience with this and network broadband becomes a reality, there are bound to be greater advancements and uses of citizen collaboration to deliver public services.

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© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Fix My Street

[This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders on February 12, 2009.  I’m surprised more of them have not used either FixMyStreet or its American variation, SeeClickFix.]

With digital cameras and cameras within mobile phones, your citizens can be your eyes and ears. 

Don’t wait for a problem – or worse, a pattern of problems – to get out of hand. Encourage people to help you identify those problems fast. They can take a picture or even a video, identify the location and send it to you.

In tough financial times, this approach helps in a number of ways. It opens up the possibility of reducing staff who just go around looking for problems, since citizens would be volunteering to do work that you used to pay for. Some of these positions can be shifted to fixing the problems.  All in all, this should allow for a faster resolution of problems and more satisfied citizens.

It is, of course, conceivable that you might be overwhelmed by complaints. To handle this situation, you can explain on the site how you prioritize problems so people know what to expect. You might indicate that high risk problems or those in busy areas or those that are costly come first. 

You could even ask the person submitting the report to rate the problem against your criteria and then let other visitors to the site agree or disagree. That way, to some extent, you let public opinion help you determine the order in which problems are to be addressed. You could even copy some of the websites that encourage people to rank products, except in this case, they would be encouraged to rank problems. 

FixMyStreet – at – was developed by a British non-profit,, so that citizens can ”report, view, or discuss local problems (like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting).” 

In the UK, a citizen files a report and the non-profit group sends it in to the local government. But you don’t need a middle-man; you could set up such a website yourself. And the FixMyStreet software is free (open-source) software, so setting it up is not expensive. 

Finally, while FixMyStreet focuses on these simple physical problems on a street, you don’t have to limit yourself to those kinds of problems, of course. Any kind of problem or incident could be reported.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis