Government in a Google Box by Al Sikes


Google succeeded because it masked complexity in a simple search box and quickly presented results. Brief history: Google was not the first to provide Web search, but its competitors frequently offered up confusing interfaces.

Several weeks ago I was drawn into complexity — dealing with a government agency. My wife and I received our first Global Entry pass after an interview at the Philadelphia airport in 2012.

The passes must be renewed this year.

My wife’s request for renewal was approved, but mine was conditioned on coming in for another interview and fingerprinting. I decided to ask why.

First I went to the Global Entry website and used their “contact us” feature and seven days later got a non-answer. So I then called the phone number, listened and responded to a number of prompts and then after 20 minutes of music got a person. His best answer: “You have a 50/50 chance of an unconditional renewal.” As my wife’s application was being approved, mine, by default, was being conditioned.

In all, and not counting the time spent by Marty (my wife) in filling out the initial paperwork, I probably had two hours invested along with no small amount of frustration. But then I told myself, this is nothing compared to the stories you read about people who can’t get answers to
much more important questions.

I decided to test the government response against a Google search. I typed in Global Entry renewal. Within a fraction of a second, the top two responses appeared. The first in order directed me to the government agency site and to a FAQ function. When clicked on, the FAQ access link said the database was down.

I then went to the second in order, One Mile at a Time, and was greeted by a fellow named Ben Schlappig, who states he is “obsessed with aviation, travel, and more specifically, using airline miles and credit card points to elevate the travel experience.” I quickly found out from Schlappig, whose nickname is Lucky, what I had spent two hours to find out from the government.

I have no idea how many government employees and contractors are involved in building and maintaining websites. Undoubtedly the answer is a lot. Then there are those who have to answer phone calls with barely more than a script. I suggest the various levels of government be put into a Google box.

While I am not that big on supplying more revenue to Google (or perhaps Bing), to me, we who pay and then get frustrated should demand that our enormous and complex government agencies become, in the jargon of the day, transparent, and easily so. This is especially true for agencies that field consumer inquiries.

Each day there are, I suspect, millions who need to ask questions about healthcare, taxes, military service benefits, and the like. They should be served up something other than unmasked complexity or telephone queues.

Of course, today the news is filled with high policy. How should healthcare risk be funded?

How should tax relief for one category of taxpayers be offset by increased rates or reduced deductions by some other group of taxpayers? Undoubtedly these are important questions, although seemingly our leaders are not able to answer them.

Maybe our leaders need to spend more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve me.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Letters to Editor


    The suggestion made by Mr. Sikes is potentially a very good one. Currently the standard seems to be delay, pass onward, equivocate and insist on following protocols that cannot be explained with written rules or even simple logic. One might ask, “How many jobs would it cost to eliminate such legal torture tactics?” From what one gathers, there would be many government employees no longer required to read a script after a long delay on the phone. Obviously, from the perspective of government dependent workers, this is not a viable concept. Only a taxpayer would find it appealing so long as it was not their own job at stake. Might as well add this very good idea to many other similar ones with merit into our stockpile of things which are not going to happen.

    It makes perfect sense, that a person such as Mr. Sikes, with a long and respected career in and out of government, would simply get a permanent pass to go and come with ease through any entry point. The fact that this can’t happen highlights the dumbness of the two-faced nature of our society trying to look fair and open, when the opposite becomes true in the actual process. If you like to travel, being interfered with and challenged is just part of the game. I’d much prefer to see the USA and live quietly in my rural home. Its easy to imagine why one might prefer such a choice. Google as a model for finding out how to deal with our government would provide speed of access sufficient to create chaos, I’m afraid. It might be entertaining to watch at a safe distance.

  2. James Buckley says:

    Thank you, Al., for adding to the volumes documenting federal (or state) “consumer service.” Of course, the easy solution is to contact the office of Rep. Andy Harris or Sen. Ben Cardin. They will get you fixed up in a jiffy. All they do these days is handle constituent rescues from the government swamps. They campaign on constituent service. We taxpayers pay zillions to hire the staff people to help us wade through the great morass that our elected representatives created. It is their business. Right after raising money to get back in office. It is too much to ask that they simply drain the swamp. That is way too dangerous.

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