Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.

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Public Service Made Customer Service

Earlier this year on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked Nancy Pelosi a rather awkward question: In effect, can our government still do big things? She never really answered the question, which was also kind of awkward. I don’t think she saw it coming. He was really probing into the nature of government competence and our ability to trust elected, appointed, and civil service employees to be great at their jobs and exceed our expectations. It was not meant to be a partisan question, but somehow that’s where it went, which sort of ducked the broader concern, which sort of reinforced his critique.

Like I said, it was awkward, and it got me thinking, why should the output of government services–or public service–not be subject to the same expectations of for-profit customer service? I have been chewing on this for weeks, and I can’t come up with a decent response. I serve in a volunteer role in local government, so I guess that makes me part of the problem, but it also drives me to be part of the solution.

The obvious retort will be that absent the free market and competition, any single point option will more than likely descend into mediocrity as a result of monopoly and entrenchment. I don’t think it’s that simple, because for-profit and non-profit enterprises are both constantly under attack by creative destruction, which when ignored is an equally powerful remedy to mediocrity. Improved methods will obviate the obsolete; it is only a matter of time and catalyst.

Global EntryThis past month I experienced a pleasantly opposite case, where public service did exceed my expectations–with expedience, practicality, and cordial handling. I applied for Global Entry, the Trusted Traveler Network administered by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. I went to their website, filled out the form in less than half an hour, was promptly notified online of conditional approval, and asked to sign up for an in-person interview at LAX. I quickly discovered there was a three-month wait for an interview, but the site suggested I check back frequently online for a cancellation. I got one within 48 hours for an appointment the same month, went to the interview, was promptly welcomed upon arrival (I was early and they took me when I got there), and ten minutes later I was fingerprinted and done. I was approved online that afternoon. Perfect.

This was exemplary customer service in action. It was almost as if Border Patrol had set out to prove that customer service was still possible within our government where there is an expressed commitment to make it so. They have my applause. I don’t know if I can award them my future business or ongoing loyalty given their scope of offerings, but just like writing a positive restaurant review on Yelp, I am giving them the loudest shout-out I can in as public a forum as I can, which is how the customer service game pays back winners with referrals.

I couldn’t help but compare and contrast that with several other recent observations of public service that simply haven’t embraced that ethos:

HealthCare.Gov – I usually focus on the broader issues of healthcare, which matter more to me than a broken website, but like Jon Stewart in the Nancy Pelosi interview, let’s focus for a moment on the website fiasco. Not only didn’t it work, not only was it impossible to navigate even when it did work, those in charge of deploying it allowed themselves to get fleeced by private-sector contractors. When you run a business with customer service in mind, you are compelled to keep your costs low and be a subject-matter expert before you offer service paid for by your customers. We are the customers of HealthCare.gov. We overpaid and we got a poor experience. Not good customer service.

Jury Duty – It makes us shiver, but it should make us proud. Anyone who gets the notice in the mail immediately starts to hedge, not because they don’t want to perform public service, but because our historic experience of this form of public service is that it is wildly inefficient. How long ago was this antiquated system designed, where you sit in a room all day doing nothing, waiting to be called or released? Yes, it has improved modestly with online registration and log-in, but when I recently spent a full day in a room of 125 people doing nothing of value, and fewer than two dozen of us were used at all, I wondered how it was possible to justify the lost productivity of 100 people times 8 hours, or 800 person-hours gone up in smoke in just the room I sat. It’s so wrong that no sustainable business could ever tolerate it, nor pay for it. If you want me to provide public service, start by seeing me as your customer and commit to process engineering so that my participation is truly of value.

Governor Christie’s Off-the Ranch-Staff – There’s a reason the obscene obstruction of a New Jersey bridge continues to ride the headlines, and it’s not just politics as usual. I use the word obscene purposefully, because using any position of public authority to harm rather than help a constituency goes against everything our democracy represents. When a public servant forgets that his or her salary is paid by the people and not the political party, all bets are off. Maybe there should be a slightly tweaked Hippocratic Oath in government: “First do no malfeasance.” If you go to work with full acknowledgment that you are in public service and your job is to provide customer service to those forking over the dollars for your gig, you couldn’t pull the trigger on anything like this, look yourself in the mirror, and say. “I did what I was supposed to do today.” When you do harm for personal gain, you add no value. You make a mockery of the privilege of serving those who trusted you.

When I was kicking around some of the themes for this post on my Facebook page as I often do before writing a new article, someone posted on my news-feed that it was a silly use of my time to write about stuff like this, because it never changes. Private-sector contractors will fleece the government, no one in the court system cares if they waste our time, and politicians will always use their power to reinforce their authority. I don’t think that’s true, and my experience with Global Entry is proof that we can do better if we make it a goal.

If we refocus the orientation of public service to be around customer service, it de facto has to improve. Perhaps more importantly, if we don’t keep tabs on the kinds of small to medium items called out here, how can we possibly have faith in the really big stuff entrusted to government: national security, fiscal solvency, social justice, and the like. There has to be a service model underlying all these tasks, subject to scrutiny, objective benchmarking, and listening to the customer. No, we’re not going to vote on what constitutes a valid TSA safety post or police DUI checkpoint, but we should always expect to be treated with courtesy when authority is surrendered for the greater good. Authority should be enacted with reason, humility, and respect so that it wins our buy-in and loyalty. Our aim should be to inspire all contributors to do their finest work all the time, to demand it of themselves as an absolute, to seek constant improvement of systems, teams, and individuals.

Think about it: virtually every customer-facing business now asks you to rate every experience you have with them, and the smart ones deploy this feedback almost in real-time to win competitive advantage. Start rating your experiences with public-service agencies, whether they request it or not, and not just at election time. Demand better and we will get it, maybe not in real-time, but sooner or later creative destruction does its job and washes away the ancient with one flavor or another of much celebrated reform.

And don’t forget to say Thank You when you catch someone doing something right. Everyone likes to get a thumbs up when it’s earned!