National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C. Vol. 31, No. 17 * September 13, 1999
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Dont Take the Human Out of Communications
Thank you for calling the county government. Please choose from one of the following 27 options. If you are left-handed and under 58, please press 1. If your mothers maiden name starts with a k, please press 2.
Welcome to the nightmare of technology gone awry as it applies to interpersonal communications. It is absolutely true that wonderful tools, such as voice mail, e-mail, and the Internet have opened new doors and new opportunities for public administration. The Human Resources Department in Broward County, Fla., alone, receives nearly 60,000 visits to its Web site per month.
We seek ways to cut costs, downsize and handle more business with fewer resources. Technology has been marketed to us as the obvious answer. Install a voice mail system and eliminate the receptionist. Let a person leave a message and save time by knowing what call was missed at any given moment. That way, you also get to choose which calls to answer and which calls to ignore. However, are these really efficiencies?
There is a danger in all of this for government and, indeed, for human relations. The danger, ironically is that in harnessing these machine-driven communication tools, we actually remove the human from human relations and interpersonal communications. We frustrate one another and we complicate the lives of our colleagues at the office and our customers needing service.
For the government agency that serves a dependent population with many people who are frail, elderly, very young, or physically or mentally disabled, the over-reliance on technology for communication becomes not only frustrating, but it can become dangerous.
Poor communications or the lack of communication frustrates people. Frustration leads to anger and estrangement. Government is already viewed by a small minority but a growing minority as the cause of all that is going wrong in their particular lives. This is not only an element in the militia movement, but this feeling of estrangement plays a role in workplace violence, the tax revolt, government by initiative and referendum and more.
On a much less dramatic scale, the dependence on technology in lieu of humanity may permit those who keep statistics all day to trumpet the agencys success in handling thousands of additional calls per month. However, most callers do not wish to be handled by the government. They need information. They have questions. They have hopes and frustrations which government should address effectively.
Instead of substituting Robby the Robot for the office receptionist, the HR Doctor offers some suggestions:
In the case of one agency, a bomb threat and an evacuation were reported on a voice mail which was not heard for over an hour. This should never happen.
The HR Doctor calls many agencies. Hardly any message is more frustrating than one that begins with, Your call is important to me. If it was so important to you, why werent you there to receive it? Why arent I, as the caller, able to enjoy a brief moment of human interaction in a world where such contact is becoming more and more rare? As a manager, be aware of ways that you can put the human back into human relations and human resources.
You are welcome to contact the HR Doctor by e-mail at email@example.com. If
you do, you will find that I actually write back or call you directly if
you leave me a phone number. Best wishes.
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,