Help Desks Front and Center

WASHINGTON (08/21/2000) - As agencies embrace electronic government and look to deliver more of their services online, the role of the lowly help desk might easily be overlooked. But it promises to be an increasingly important focus for government's move to the Internet.

It's something that the private sector has already discovered. As companies deliver more services via the World Wide Web, customers expect help to be available online, around the clock.

But many agencies have not made this link, said Susan Valaskovic, deputy director at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR). They know electronic services are in demand, "but the realization that help desks need to change is not there yet," she said.

The problem is that agencies may not have much time to adapt to the demands of the online environment. People who have enjoyed a high standard of online help from private-sector organizations will want to see the same level of service from the government, she said.

And putting government services online is clearly catching on with the public.

The Internal Revenue Service, for example, is one agency that typically scores low in customer satisfaction surveys, but the picture is completely different when it comes to online tax filing.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a private- sector quality measurement tool, the IRS scored 74 on a 0-100 scale for its electronic tax filing service. The ACSI for regular tax filing was only 51.

"The online service allowed for more prompt feedback to our customers about their filing, and it provided for more accurate processing," said Bob Barr, assistant commissioner for the IRS' Electronic Tax Administration. "It was an all-around better experience for them."

That has prompted the IRS to begin testing a number of other online tax services, including a secure Web site for professional tax preparers and a "virtual field assistance site" that will create an online version of the IRS' nationwide tax help offices. Help desk features will necessarily have to expand along with those services, Barr said.

Much of the attention on help desks has been focused on automating and streamlining the logging and tracking of problems reported within organizations. That has developed into tools that have begun to transform help desks into central repositories of information that aid in tracking IT assets and managing network performance.

For organizations that have employed those tools, help desks have gone from strictly reactionary, people-intensive operations to proactive resources that can be used to head off problems sometimes before they occur. The next step will be to marry these functions with those of the traditional call center, which deals with the external customers of an organization. "That's when you start talking about the extended enterprise, and that's where the call center and the help-desk concepts start to blur," said Howard Hastings, director of service management solutions for vendor Remedy Corp. "It's where all [help inquiries] will be routed through the same process. Some very large enterprise customers are starting to look at this now."

Outside customers of an agency would go to an automated, Web-based help-desk application, for example, while a workflow engine working in the background would translate requests for help into multiple "actionable" items that would be routed to appropriate departments. These online dialogues would be captured so that an increasingly detailed picture of who is asking for what help and from whom could be developed.

Government agencies could also begin to think this way, Valaskovic said, even though they are only just starting to move to electronic delivery of services.

"It's clear that the help desk [in the Electronic Age] is no longer an isolated system," she said. "[So] the electronic service delivery plan needs to take account of this. As agencies make changes to one system or set of systems, they have to be able to see how those systems can plug into the help desk more conveniently."

Not all agencies will be pushed as quickly to configure their help desks for electronic service delivery, Barr said, because only a few agencies have extensive contact with the public. But he "senses that the pace is quickening" elsewhere in government about this, particularly as agencies such as the U.S.

Mint and the Social Security Administration have also gained good ACSI scores for electronic service delivery.

"I think people are seeing real opportunities to leapfrog some of the challenges we have by leveraging technology with automated help desk services," he said.

The IRS is taking the lead, in concert with NPR, in forming a government "community of practice" for electronic transactions. Barr said the exchange of ideas about managing e-business in government will lead to improvements in customer satisfaction.

"Every year we get a couple of million new adults who come into our world," he said. "They've been brought up with computers and the Internet, and using those things is second nature to them. They will expect to be able to do things electronically."

Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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