Good and bad government processes

A few months ago, I blogged about the unexpectedly good experience that I’d had at the Canadian passport office, where the process actually worked the way it was supposed to, and rewarded the consumer (me) by accelerating my wait time since I did my own data entry online.

Last week, I had two other government business process experiences: one good, one bad.

The good one was my NEXUS card: NEXUS is a joint program between the Canadian and American governments to allow frequent travellers to replace the long immigration line-ups in both directions with a retinal scan for authentication and a few questions on a touch-screen kiosk. Since I travel across the border fairly regularly, I decided to apply for this, especially after being stuck in a line of 500 people waiting for immigration checks a few times. Friends warned that it took 6-8 weeks for the preliminary approval, and that the follow-up interviews were already being scheduled for December. Wrong. I applied using the online form about 3-1/2 weeks ago, and received (by email) my approval and invitation to schedule an interview about two weeks later. I went online the next day, a Saturday, and found an appointment for that Monday — a 2-day wait rather than the 2 months that I was expecting. I went out to their office at the Toronto airport for the interview, again expecting an hours-long delay, and was out of there so fast that my parking cost was $3 — that’s the minimum, which means that it was less than 30 minutes to park the car, find their office, have my eyes and fingers scanned, answer some questions and have my card issued.

Before the passport office experience, I never believed that the Canadian government could behave so efficiently. Before last week, I never believed that two governments in collaboration could possibly do something like this in less than 3 weeks, but they did. I have to imagine that part of this is because I chose to fill in the online application — thereby doing their data entry for them and hopefully allowing them to automate some parts of the process — rather than the paper application form; I’d be very curious to hear what the average application-to-interview time is for the paper method. I’d also love to know if they’re using some sort of BPM technology to help this process along.

The bad government business process experience that I had was with the Indian consulate in Toronto, and has killed my planned trip to speak at SOA India in Bangalore in November. I was getting my trip plans in place, and knew that I had to get a visa in order to enter India. On the website of the Indian consulate, however, I saw that the process is to mail in my passport, then they keep it for 3-5 days, then they mail it back. To be conservative, that’s 2+5+2 = 9 business days (if nothing goes wrong). My problem is that I don’t have a stretch of 9 business days in the next 3-4 weeks when I’m not flying between Canada and the US — which now requires a passport — because of the conferences that I’m attending, so I can’t go through the usual process. I email the Vice Consul for Visas to see if there’s an expedited process for this situation, who responds “Possibility can be explored but without any promises” and invites me to come into the consulate. We scramble around to get our visa applications filled out, get the requisite photos and money orders, then arrive shortly after the consulate opens one morning last week. Huge lineup just to get to the triage desk; we wait in line for over an hour just to speak with someone, who then wrote my name on a list for an interview. We sat in the waiting room for an additional 3 hours before my name was called, then entered the office of someone who may have been the Vice Consul or not. I explained the same thing that I had said in my email — I travel to the US frequently and can’t give up my passport for a week and a half, so am looking for an expedited process — and he immediately responded “I’ve had 10 people in here today with the same issue, and I had to turn them all down, so it’s not fair if I do it for you; we can only expedite the process for family emergencies.” The interview was over in 30 seconds. WTF? Why didn’t he tell me that in the email, so that I didn’t waste a couple of hours of prep time, four hours of sitting in their waiting room, and $50 on photos, money orders and prepaid return envelopes? For that matter, why isn’t there an expedited process (for a fee, of course) for those of us who can’t give up our passports for a long time due to frequent cross-border travel? My travel to India was to speak at a business conference, which presumably benefits the Indian economy in some small way.

What we have is the case of a business process gone horribly wrong, and not really serving all of the constituents that it is meant to serve. The process appears to be completely manual and not have the same rules for everyone: some visas were being expedited, but not for business reasons. There’s a mismatch between the information that was offered by email and what the consulate worker was actually empowered to do, or possibly what he chose to do at that moment. There’s excessive unscheduled wait time for participants in the process. And, in the end, it’s the Indian conference organizer (and potentially the attendees) who suffers through no actions of his own: he now needs to find a replacement speaker to come to India on 6 weeks notice.

I’m sure that the Indian government has challenges that the Canadian and American governments can’t even imagine, and I don’t expect to see the same level of technology and automation. However, there are huge opportunities for process improvement here that don’t involve technology, just standardization and a focus on efficiency.

7 thoughts on “Good and bad government processes

  1. Hi Sandy,

    I can sympathize with your experiences. We’ve received the passport for my daughter in two weeks, but the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been unable for 3 months now to change a capital Z into a lower case z on her birth certificate. I guess the processing time for this case is 0.1% of the overall transaction time (I’ve ranted about that on my blog)…

    My suspicion is that culture plays a big role in these situations. I’ve just arrived in Paris after speaking at a conference in Poland, and I added a 4 h layover in Frankfurt to open a new checking account (not very satisfied with my old bank, but that’s a different story). So I show up at the local branch of Citibank, to find a line of 4 people that take about 20 minutes to be processed by the information desk. Then I’m told that a Passport and Drivers License are insufficient as proof of foreign residency, opening an account takes “about an hour”, I should have made an appointment in the first place (mind you, I wanted a checking account, not a mortgage!), and all of their CSRs are “incredibly busy”. While I’m having my little spat every 5 minutes an intern shows up and interrupts the transaction with some nonsensical question which slows the whole process down further. I’m a Citibank customer in the states, so I offered them to call my branch and have them fax an account statement over, but the answer was “we can’t do that”. In the end I had to leave without success.

    In Germany the trains may still run on time (if their drivers don’t strike), but this “we don’t do flexibility” attitude makes everyday transactions nearly unbearable. Purely focusing on efficiency may thus be detrimental. I think the key is to figure out what the goals of your customers are, and to make sure that your process goals and structure are aligned with them – only then will you create a satisfactory customer experience.

    Best

    Michael

  2. Just to prove we all read – and again a constrasting experience for you. To get the british equivalent of Nexus (called IRIS) took all of 15 minutes while I was waiting in the lounge to have my Iris scanned and linked to my passport (and that included having 2 people in front of me int he queue). No messy interview … but then we are not talking about the paranoid behaviour of the US immigration agents.

    And in a sense, the posting and Michael’s response just now, talk to the issue of “Customers and Business Processes – Difficult Domains to Integrate” … my most recent white paper. Point is that for efficiency purposes, you generally want customers to behave in a certain way. Problem is that for most businesses (i.e. where no monopoly exists), the customer is really the one in control. If they dont like your process they end up going elsewhere. So we as customers expect the vendor of a product or service, to vary the process to fit in with our needs. A big challenge for those modeling and automating processes. You can find the paper on the BPM Focus web site if you want to pursue the line of discussion.

  3. Michael, I read about your experiences with the birth certificate on your blog — funny, but only because it’s not happening to me. 🙂 I’m not sure that your German banking experience is all that unique; when I lived in the US for a few years, I had similar problems getting a bank account and credit cards at first, and there seemed to be a huge mistrust on the bank’s side because I didn’t have a US credit rating, as if they thought that the entire planet had one by proxy or something. The Canadian and US banking systems are undeniably closer than the German and US ones are, but getting information about my accounts across any border proved difficult.

    Derek, not surprising that the UK IRIS clearance is so fast, because it’s getting you into a country for which you hold a passport. NEXUS is for travel into a country for which I don’t hold a passport, namely the US. It also works for clearance back into Canada, but I didn’t require an interview with the Canadian officials because I hold a Canadian passport.

    The problem that I experienced with the Indian consulate (and that Michael is having with the NYC govt) is that the customer is *not* in control — the government agency holds a monopoly on what we want, and the only way to get it is for the customer to try and figure out what the process is so that we can provide the proper inputs in order to get the result that we want. Since the processes are completely opaque to the customer, we really have no idea what those inputs should be, since they’re not always what is advertised. The drivers for improved processes in government organizations are much different than those for private industry: although they may have the same efficiency goals (or not), they’re not, in general, worried about losing their customers so don’t bother to factor their concerns into the process.

  4. Sorry to hear your experience with Indian embassy. A point I observed about Indian systems is there are no working metric collection and feedback mechanisms. So top decision makers are not even aware of problems. To put a metric collection program and feedback mechanisms in place, would be a good beginning.
    Even best laid processes deteorate with time and only feedback and metrics can point out health of a process.

  5. Hi Sandy,

    Don’t cancel your trip just yet. The consulate in SF will process you in one day. You drop off your passport in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon. I am not a US citizen nor resident and it works for me, so it should work for you too and I imagine it should work in any US city with an Indian consulate.

    Check instructions on http://www.cgisf.org/

    Last time I went (this Apr) the lines were much shorter than in the past (they used to be like what you described), so overall you should be in for a better experience…

  6. My next trip is New York, but the NYC consulate has outsourced their visa process (no doubt to improve the business process) and the outsourcer doesn’t accept applications from non-residents. Also, it’s a quick trip so no time to do it unless it literally takes less than an hour.

    Next one after that is Orlando, not exactly a hotspot for Indian consulates.

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