Suggestions For Better Government Services

I have dealt with government services in multiple places now, and I believe that I have found the common pitfalls that service providers often fall into. This post is not a rant. There is already a lot of documented evidence of governments that were unable to deliver services well, frequently leading to consequences ranging from mild annoyances to tragic outcomes like death: Regional passport offices, post offices, nationalized banks like State Bank of India and Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) in India, Immigration centers in Japan, and and DMV in the US. This post lists some of the simple enhancements that service providers can implement at low to medium costs to improve the consumer’s experience.

The Internet Is A Powerful Communication Tool. Use It Wisely.

There is a line between using the Internet to disseminate information to consumers, and designating the Internet as the only medium through which service can be obtained. The latter is ridden with problems emanating from unequal access to the Internet and is not a good idea. On the other hand, the former is a noble cause and service providers should put information about the services that they provide, the times that they are open, and the amount of time that each service is expected to take on their websites. The websites should be easily accessibly in the commonly spoken regional languages1.

The gold standard is the list of procedures on the Immigration Services website of Japan. These services can be availed by foreigners in Japan. The website is available in Japanese and English, and each procedure has the essential things that people want to know about it:

This is the absolute minimum that the applicant must know before they go to the center. To avoid multiple trips, maintaining an accurate list on the website will reduce the administrative load of the service provider (people will not have to be told what to bring or told to come back later) and will make the applicant’s life immeasurably easier. The reduced anxiety and stress that is felt by applicants is objectively a good thing.

Use Token Numbers Instead Of Queues

Another common image is a line of people who are standing in a queue outside a government office. In pouring rain or under the hot sun, the line of people remains unchanged; while the service provider is sitting inside an air conditioned office under a concrete roof, with a hot beverage on their desk. The injustice is painfully obvious, and this cruelty serves no one. This system is open to caricature and Kafka does government caricature better than anyone else. (Suffocating rooms inside bureaucracies are as common in his novel, Trial as primary colors in a child’s landscape painting.)

Token numbers are the obvious solution to this problem. The service provider’s office should have two doors: one with a simple reception where monotonically increasing token numbers are dispensed to people, along with the time at which they should show up. The other door leads the applicants into the actual office where they can apply for the document or the service that they came for.

This solution is fairly common in Indian banks in metro cities where almost all the business in a bank can be done by getting a token when one enters the bank, waiting (while seated) in the chairs and benches around the branch, and watching a television screen that displays the token number that is currently being serviced.

The implementation of such a system is extremely cost-effective. Both the economic cost and the administrative cost of setting up such a system is minimal. I would go so far as to say that a motivated bureaucrat with the appropriate amount of political capital within their department can turn around the functioning of any government office and increase the efficiency manifold through such a system.

Further, this kind of system is open to data collection. Once the system is working smoothly, bureaucrats at higher levels should be able to easily collect data about what kind of services are taking up too long to dispense and how these processes can be improved to reduce the burden on government workers.

For this suggestion, I will offer a caveat. The obvious next step to this “Token numbers” system is the one which tries to allocate appointments to people through an appointment system on the Internet. This increases the benefits for the applicants manifold. But for the service provider, implementing such a system is extremely high cost. The economic cost of implementing such a system is quite high. The initial administrative cost of starting this implementation is nearly insurmountable in most government settings where short-term results are key to career advancement. A long-term project which starts with a tendering process to find a digital vendor to build this appointment booking portal will almost always end in tears2.

India’s Passport Application Process went through a revolutionary change between the first time I applied for a passport in 2005 and the most recent time I applied for one in 2015. The system went from a standard, Kafkaesque government office experience (complete with mezzanine ceilings, wooden benches set against concrete walls, and the essential profound, suffocating despair) to a modern office building run by a private company that prizes efficiency with a single government functionary who takes the final decision about whether the passport should be issued or not. One prominent part of this new system is the appointment booking system which allows applicants to fill out all their information online and then reach the passport office at the appointed time for their appointment. But there’s a major problem in the system.

The system is based on government information and does not clearly explain what documents are required from each type of applicant. The list of documents change depending on your age, your phase of life, and whether you are applying for a new passport or a renewal of your existing passport. These rules are extremely hard to parse for human beings, but they are extremely easy for a computer to navigate given the right number of inputs. In any case, the lack of this basic part of the system ended up in an extra trip to the passport office for me because the documents that I had were not sufficient.3

Compassionate Service Providers And Applicants

The dehumanization of healthcare is a scourge in our society: the delivery of bad news to patients has become another routine task. Medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and House M.D. frequently feature compassionate healthcare providers in lead roles. A society-wide agreement about dehumanization being bad for society is yet to come. Given that cliffhanger of a decision that society is (as yet) unwilling to make, service providers inside governments can lead the charge by employing a humane and compassionate workforce, filled with people who are willing to go the distance for applicants who are (always) helpless and (totally) dependent on the whims of the service providers.

This piece of advice applies to applicants as well. The spectacle of a frustrated applicant screaming at or threatening a government functionary is not uncommon. The functionaries are often themselves powerless, employed at the clerical level, and were probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to this humiliation. Here the applicant must also understand the wheels that are in motion behind the scene. As a cog in the system, neither the applicant nor the government employee can effect any large change. It would be wise for these two groups to stay together and strive to implement changes that would benefit both groups, that so often seems out of reach, by converting their shared anger and frustration into well-researched criticism and directing it at the people who are setting up the systems rather than the people who are simply following handbooks which are given to them.

The primary misalignment in all government services is that the application process is set-up to prevent a bad-faith actor from going through the process without tripping any of the wires, even though the majority of the applicants that go through the process are good-faith actors, who do not intend to hoodwink the government. In higher-income economies where economic tracking of the citizenry is accurate and multi-pronged, governments are confident in their ability to identify bad-faith actors without these exhausting roadblocks in routine application processes. In lower- and middle-income economies where economic tracking is weak and ridden with loopholes, the government’s trust in its citizens providing accurate information is low and this is the root cause of the high administrative burden to acquiring services in these places. But even this burden can be made easier to bear through low-cost solutions and governments which implement such solutions will find much favor among the residents of their jurisdiction.

  1. Note here that I am not recommending service providers to provide this information in a million different languages. The additional cost for building this kind of a multi-lingual website is considerable. The benefits that are gained are marginal. Services like and Google Translate are freely available and easy to integrate into most browsers even for normal users. 

  2. For a recent government service, I visited the website of the Tamil Nadu Registrar Offices. This portal has an appointment system and is complicated enough to warrant a user manual for each process that is offered on the portal. The user manuals are excellent with screenshots and instructions about each step in the application process. But creating them probably took as long as building the website itself. This extra cost is unnecessary and should be done away with in initial implementations of the token system. 

  3. A common parable about going to Indian government offices is that the officer there will ask you for the one document that you don’t have with you.