In busy offices across Canada, phones ring steadily with questions from citizens about where and how to get government services. Appointments are booked for people seeking in-person advice. E-mail boxes are crammed and fax machines hum with complaints and queries.
These are the frontlines of service delivery, but they’re are not in call centres. Instead, these are the constituency offices of provincial, municipal and federal elected officials everywhere.
When most people think of elected officials, they do not picture them as frontline service workers. Usually, they picture them elected officials in their traditional place, the legislaturive or council chamber. There they debate, they deliberate and they vote. And this is in many respects the right picture.
The less acknowledged part of their work happens when they return to their communities and hear from citizens not just about how they should vote, but also about how to get business permits, help get qualified immigrants to Canada, or generally get disentangled from government’s red tape.
Elected officials and their staffs are case managers who help citizens navigate along the road to getting the government services they need. But not much has been said or written about this area among those at the vanguard of Canada’s service improvement efforts.
Some folks are thinking differently, however. Peter MacLeod, a Canadian doctoral student at the London School of Economics, is working on a study called the Constituency Project (www.theconstituencyproject.ca). He has spent the past two years traveling across Canada visiting 97 constituency offices to see what makes them tick.
While he hasn’t released his full report yet, The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor wrote that MacLeod came to see constituency offices as an “overlooked part of the Canadian political system, places that in most communities are considered ‘the bureau of last resort, the government’s unofficial help desk.’”
Crossing Boundaries and its Private Sector Committee have also been examining the constituency office from a different perspective — how to make it better. Together, they worked with two MLAs — Jody Carr, MLA for Oromocto-Gagetown in New Brunswick, and Doreen Hamilton, MLA for Regina-Wascana Plains in Saskatchewan — on improving their front and back offices.
The pilot project has produced two Web sites, www.jodycarr.ca and www.doreenhamilton.ca, aimed at serving constituents, plus a case management system that e-enables Jody, Doreen and their staffs to better handle their case loads, which range from 4 to 24 a week. The team also connected Jody and Doreen with an e-consultation tool that helps them reach out to constituents on issues that matter to them. According to reports from this experiment, the new tools are making a real and positive difference.
It’s interesting to consider — why aren’t constituency offices more recognized as points of service for citizens? Ontario has 103 provincial constituencies. Federally, there are 308. Add to this all the municipal councillors’ and mayors’ offices that get questions from citizens in every town and city, and it becomes clear that elected officials are pretty serious players in the service delivery world.
At least three things might be done to support them in this role. First, more research about what they do and how they do it could show the rest of the service delivery community the contribution they make. Second, this understanding could then be used to ensure that the right supports are in place—technological, management or otherwise — to make the work they are doing easier. Finally, positioning elected officials as part of the “enterprise-wide” approach to service delivery could help create stronger links between elected officials’ offices, call centres and headquarters, delivering better service to citizens no matter where they go to get what they need.
Peter McLeod is right to call constituency offices “the government’s unofficial help desk.” It’s time to recognize their place on the frontlines of service delivery.
John Milloy (john[email protected]) is MPP for Kitchener Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Ontario; Maryantonett Flumian ([email protected]) is Deputy Minister of Service Canada. Both are members of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (www.crossingboundaries.ca).