Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Primer on Government info lines...

This is going to be my effort to de-mystify the world of government information phone lines. I will attempt to lay out as best I can, what they can and cannot do for you, as well as why they have the limitations that they do.

What they provide:

- Government info lines provide information on the programs and services delivered by their particular federal department or agency. This would include information on the service itself, applications, eligibility and contacts for a regional office such as address, phone, fax and e-mail. They do not provide information on the programs or services of other federal government departments, whether you think they should be related or not. Remember that just because you happen to think a specific federal department should be able to provide information on a certain topic, does not make it so.

What they do not provide:

- Federal government information lines do not provide information on programs and services which are provided by provincial or municipal governments. Many callers have no comprehension of the division of responsibilities between the various levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal). The office of the Prime Minister is not responsible for the garbage pick up on your street, contrary to what some woman in BC believed. The federal government is not responsible for Social Assistance (Welfare) in any of Canada's provinces or territories. The provinces and territories are. No part of the Canadian federal government, is responsible for shark finning which might be taking place in oceans three continents away. As unbelievable as this might sound, there are those who believe that Fisheries and Oceans Canada can arbitrarily shut down a fishery in a foreign country. I'm thinking: "Put the crack pipe down and back away slowly...". We regularly encounter such wonderful examples of howling ignorance. The federal government is not responsible for issuing freshwater, recreational fishing licenses in your area. Again, that's your provincial or territorial government. Just to give you an example of how thick some people are, we have just finished responding by e-mail for the 6th time, to a woman from Ontario. She is looking for information on commercial fishing license buy-outs in the Great Lakes region. Commercial AND recreational fisheries within the Province of Ontario, fall under the jurisdiction abd management of the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources... NOT the department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (obviously part of the federal government).

- Government information lines do not provide information that stems from either common knowledge or common sense. Don't laugh here. As a conservative estimate, I would rate a good 40% of all the calls we receive, as being from people looking for information that most folks get from their parents before they reach the age of 8. Seriously... I can't tell you why you shouldn't walk in front of a moving bus, or tell you why you should actually wear a life jacket when onboard a boat. I can't convert Kilowatt-Hours into Horsepower for you. Nor can we convert litres to gallons for you. Call your Mom... Call centre personnel are not permitted to offer information from personal experience, from printed material, from websites or from a phone book either. These clear divisions over what we can or cannot provide as information, are all governed by what is called the mandate of the line.

What is a 'mandate'?

Simply put, the mandate of any particular government information line is the operating parameters the Information Officer must operate within. The mandate is what dictates not only what information we provide, it also lays out how that information should be delivered, the greeting, allowable hold periods and how to end the call. It governs every step of a call from the moment the line beeps in our headset, to the moment the call is terminated.
It is also the mandate which provides us the means of giving an ignorant caller the heave-ho. We're here to provide information, not to take shit from any of our callers, be they irate or not. To operate outside the mandate of the line can cost an Information Officer their job, so don't ask them to...

Another preconception held by many callers, is the makeup of the government itself. It is largely assumed when the caller learns that you are located in Ottawa, that you frequently have lunch with the Prime Minister and are a regular guest at the Governor General's residence as well. That we are privy to every decision-making process affecting the lives of Canadians everywhere. They also believe in their mind's eye, that the federal government is a small, closely-knit group of people, who occupy the same small building and are all fully aware of the goings-on in each other's departments. I can't begin to tell you how much this is NOT HOW IT IS!!!

The federal government is made up of literally hundreds of different departments and agencies. Each one is in turn made up of dozens of sub-departments, each one having it's own prograns, services and information. They each have representatives in every province and territory, from sea to shining sea. And Canada is a very, very big country. A fact I find myself having to inform callers of, on a regular basis.

Automated Lines.

When you reach many automated lines within the federal government (we're not automated, live service only...), you will be greeted initially by a telemessage. This is a recorded menu that will give you information on services/information available from the service you have reached. It will be followed or accompanied by a list of options and directions for contacting these options. (Press 1 for... Press 2 for...). A word of advice here: Listen to the telemessage! By listening to the telemessage, you will be given the means to communicate with one of their agents, depending on the information (option) you require. It's really that simple. You just have to be smarter than your phone... We know how the system works. Now, so do you.

We are how many people...?

Remember that the one toll-free number that you have for that specific government department, serves the entire country. There are over 30 million of us Canadians here, so don't be amazed if it takes a little while to get through to someone. You can't possibly be the only one in the country who has decided to phone that line at that particular moment.

Are you crippled...?

Every now and then, we encounter callers who are just about apoplectic because they can't reach someone on the phone at one of their local government offices. In despair, they will frequently ask us what to do. It's unfortunate that all we can do is verify the number that they have. I will however point out that their offices are open from this hour to this hour, "FOR IN PERSON SERVICE!!!" Basically, I'm trying to hint that if they really wanted to talk to someone and the phone wasn't working for them, they could get off their ass and make their way down to the office itself. That way, they can talk to someone face to face. How effective is that!?!??!!? Wow!!!

So when you do call up a federal information line, do some research on what you are looking for first. Find out if it's a service or a program that actually comes from the feds and not your provincial or municipal government. Be aware of what department you're calling and what services/information they provide. Remember that we are not all sitting around casually in large overstuffed chairs, eagerly awaiting to while away the day chatting about whatever strikes your fancy. Accept that there are limitations to the information that we can provide and do not come across with this: "Yeah...but you guys are just a call centre..." mentality. We are all intimately familiar with the information we provide and even on our worst day, are infinitely more clued in than you are.

If you have absolutely no idea as to who might provide the information you need (don't feel too bad, most Canadians are woefully uneducated when it comes to 'the gubmint'), phone the 1 800 O Canada line (1-800-622-6232, 8a.m. - 8p.m., Mon.-Fri.) They are the information and referral service for the entire federal government of Canada and also have some limited provincial and territorial contacts as well. For most Canadians, they should be the very first place to call. They will be able to re-direct you appropriately.

No comments: