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Believe it or not, there's a big business today that exists trying to improve something that sounds like a bad oxymoron—that is customer service in government. At all levels of government—and indeed all around the world—there is a whole lot of interest among those who lead government agencies and a ready cadre of small and larger consulting and training firms out there who are willing and eager to work with the public sector to try and improve the delivery, speed, and efficiency of government services for constituents. Yes, citizens are customers!
And yet, what image comes to mind when you ask someone about their past dealings with any government agency? Well, the first rule is not to ask about what happened! Generally, though, they will relate to a story that is not a five-star experience! Their tale of woe will inevitably involve some combination of long lines, rude employees, too many supervisors and not enough folks actually doing the work, and an office that looked like it was out of the days of "Mad Men" (and likely smelled like the 1960s, too!)
Government agencies today, by and large, really are trying to do better! And overall, by actual measures of customer satisfaction with government agencies, local, state and even the federal government are doing a better job today of handling an ever-increasing workload—generally with flat or often declining budgets for personnel, technology, and the actual "things" that could actually improve customer service capabilities. Still, the negative perceptions are out there about working for the government, and they are widespread. Whether it's folks sleeping on the job or just moving really, really slow—the whole notion of government leaders actually caring about the service they provide to their citizen-customers seems like a misnomer to many outside of the public sector.
And so now we have a story in the news that would seem to confirm folks' worst stereotypes about having to deal with government workers and with the government in general. It is the kind of story that just makes you shake your head if you care about trying to improve government service delivery. It is a scale of incompetence that can and will go viral in our age of social media—as it quickly did in this instance.
In short, while it is the stuff of legends and fodder for humor on late night talk shows, for all the good that is being done on this front to really work to improve the customer experience in the public sector, from agency executives down to the front lines of government service, the story can set back the cause. While showing that we still have a long way to go in making the average citizen think that dealing with the government—any government—will be as easy as shopping at Nordstrom's or as reliable and often fun as flying on Southwest Airlines.
So what happened? In a nutshell, here it is:
The details, however, make the story even worse! Gavin Clarkson is a resident of New Mexico, and he is not a man without an interesting past. He had been an who had been a former finance professor at New Mexico State University (he's currently suing the institution to get his job back), a former deputy assistant secretary in the Trump Administration, and most recently, an unsuccessful candidate to be New Mexico's Secretary of State (losing an election-night "squeaker"—not—by 20 points to his Democratic opponent). He and his then-fiancée (who is a resident in our nation's capitol—Washington, DC) made the requisite visit to the District of Columbia Marriage Bureau before their nuptials to get their wedding license taken care of.
However, when it was their turn to do what should be the most routine of government business, their visit turned into something that was anything but routine! Apparently, both the clerk that dealt directly with the couple and yes, her supervisor, learned a simple lesson in geography that day—the same lesson that Homer Simpson once famously learned—but that was in a cartoon...
As folks do these days when something—well, anything—unusual happens to them, Clarkson posted about the incident on Twitter. And yes, his tweet pretty much says it all:
And so yes, the crux of the story is that both the clerk and her supervisor mistook New Mexico as not being in the United States, informing the groom-to-be that if they could just see his passport from his home country of New Mexico (Hello! Not a country!) They could issue the couple their marriage license. And while the folks lucky—or really unlucky enough—to be in line behind the future Clarkson's at the marriage bureau that morning were laughing behind them, Gavin Clarkson and his then future wife were in just a bit of a very real predicament. However, after some "discussion ensued," the couple finally convinced the DC government that yes, while the District of Columbia wasn't officially a state in the United States (a subject for a whole other day!)
When the story first quickly went viral on social media and then crossed over to the mainstream news media, people, of course, had a field day poking fun at the DC government. In response to the matter, Leah H. Gurowitz, who serves as the director of media and public relations for Washington's municipal courts, did acknowledge that the staff in the marriage office that day indeed made a mistake, telling the Las Cruces Sun-News that:
"We understand that a clerk in our Marriage Bureau made a mistake regarding New Mexico's 106-year history as a state. We very much regret the error and the slight delay it caused a New Mexico resident in applying for a DC marriage license."
Now one could easily just chalk this up to a bad day—perhaps a no good, very bad dayat the District of Columbia Courts Marriage Bureau. And in the end, it really turned out to be a "no harm, no foul" situation. After all, Gary and Marina did leave the office that day with quite a story - and their marriage license!
And yes, today, they are the Clarksons!
But of course, as happens today, Dr. Clarkson is now having his proverbial "15 minutes of fame," telling and retelling the story during his honeymoon...
And so what "lessons learned" should we take away from this? Well, as a management professor and consultant who has worked for going on two decades now working with government agencies from Washington to Waxahachie and from Texas to Turkey, I can tell you that while many in the general public may laugh, snicker, and hit "like" and then maybe even share this story on social media, many in the public sector—from the top to the bottom ranks of government agencies—can only shake their heads.
For all the very real improvements we see in customer service across government agencies, well, a story like this leaves a mark in the mind of many akin to seeing the sloth working at the DMV in "Zootopia." A government worker AND her supervisor not recognizing a New Mexico drivers license as an American drivers license? Even in the current political mood of the country, almost everyone that sees this story asks some variation of "how can this happen?" (and that is perhaps the cleanest version that I have heard or seen on this matter!)
This is perhaps one of those "perfect storm" bad customer service stories that can happen literally anywhere today, only to then go viral in an instant. How do you protect against such an occurrence in your own company's, your government agency's or even your non-profit organization's services as you have employees interact with customers and potential customers in person, on the web, in emails, in chats, etc.
Well, the sad truth of the matter is that you can't guard against something like this happening. You can try and take all the proactive measures that you want and do everything possible to prevent such occurrences - but mistakes will happen. The key is to make certain that through continual training, monitoring, testing, and yes today, surveillance, that you make certain that you have done all that you can do reasonably to ensure against it.
And yet, when it does happen, you need to own it (as DC's government did indeed do in this instance) and maybe, just maybe, you should even have some self-deprecating fun with it. Who knows, maybe you can turn a lemon of a situation into some lemonade, rather than just letting others make fun of your organization and some—often painting with broad brushstrokes—will belittle everyone in it. Be proactive. Be vigilant. But in the end, be ready to react to these stories when they happen in your organization, realizing that nothing stays localized in the world we live in today.