For many citizens, the frustration, fury and futility of having to deal with government call centers is becoming a thing of the past. The looping Muzak, fiendishly complicated touch-tone menus and sotto voce promise that your call will be answered imminently seem quintessentially '90s.
The Internet allows citizens, for example, to submit their tax forms electronically and access Medicare and payment information from the Social Security Administration's Web site.
But a substantial number of people rely on more traditional methods of interaction -- about one-third of the population does not use the Internet, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
This means telephone help lines are as important as ever. The toll-free service of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) remains a lifeline for as many as 1.65 million people a month wanting information about their status and benefits -- if they can get through.
According to data provided by USCIS, the help line gets so busy that 38,000 callers a month are prevented from even joining the queue. Callers are blocked from getting in line if there is a wait of more than 30 minutes. An additional 117,000 a month manage to join the queue but give up before their call is answered.
That means one in five callers who want to speak to a human do not succeed.
"I can't imagine this can't be re-engineered to do a better job," said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive of the Council for Excellence in Government. "We are talking about a group of people who are probably for the most part not English-speaking, who probably don't feel empowered in the same way as other people."
USCIS doesn't disagree. Mike Aytes, director of information and customer services, said that no customer should have to wait anywhere near 30 minutes. "We apologize that we're not meeting our targets now," he said.
More than half the users of the help line do not need to speak to a human and can get the information they need from prerecorded messages accessed through an automated menu system.
Callers who require additional information -- and actually get through -- can speak to a customer service assistant working in one of four call centers in Arlington; Corbin, Ky.; Lawrence, Kan.; or Phoenix who are under contract from Pearson Government Solutions. Pearson has 450 to 500 representatives working from prepared scripts answering calls and questions on case status.
More complex calls are transferred to one of 150 government-employed immigration information officials in New York and Los Angeles.
But for the thousands who never get through, who is at fault? According to USCIS, the fault is with Pearson.
"We have some contractual issues that we have to deal with," Aytes said in an interview. "We do expect significant progress over the course of the next year."
Pearson could have received as much as $36 million a year for providing this service. But under the performance-based contract, it received $27.3 million last year. The contract is to be put out to tender offers later this year.
Pearson blamed the government for significantly changing the nature of the contract since it was first awarded, with the size of scripts increasing from 400 to 1,800 pages.
"The complexity of the calls has changed," said Eileen Cassidy Rivera, spokeswoman for Pearson. "Pearson representatives are required to probe and discern the nature of the problem and handle case status. This is stressful on the customer service representatives. That's why it's hard to retain staff."
She said the company is in the midst of a big recruiting drive and will reapply for the contract despite disagreements about performance measures with USCIS.
This is scant comfort for the 1,000 customers a day barred even from joining the queue to speak to an operator. So, if they are happy to wait, why not let them?
"We are paying that long-distance call while they are remaining on hold," Aytes said. "We asked focus groups to help make this type of decision. It seemed to make more sense to ask them to call back than to leave them on hold."
The delay is not the only annoyance for users. Callers often have to sit through lengthy pre-recorded messages to reach a customer service assistant, which cannot be skipped even if they are irrelevant. Tough, say the operators.
"Customers say they don't like menus," Aytes said. "If you give them the option to skip the menus or find the magic key, they will go straight to live assistance." He said about 84 percent of their customers could transact their business without speaking to anyone.
Still, other government agencies have found ways to improve this sort of service. One such transformation took place at the Internal Revenue Service, which once recorded 400 million busy signals in a year. Charles Rossotti, who ran the agency from 1997 to 2002, believes that accurate call-volume forecasting is crucial when running such a service.
"Many good call centers, including the IRS, will have data for how many people call for every 15-minute period for the year. Otherwise, you have staff waiting around and not taking calls, then later a vast overload," he said. "But it's not an easy thing to do. It requires a great deal of very good management. It's not something that you can do overnight."