Government in a Google Box by Al Sikes


Google succeeded because it masked complexity in a simple search box and quickly presented results. Brief history: Google was not the first to provide Web search, but its competitors frequently offered up confusing interfaces.

Several weeks ago I was drawn into complexity — dealing with a government agency. My wife and I received our first Global Entry pass after an interview at the Philadelphia airport in 2012.

The passes must be renewed this year.

My wife’s request for renewal was approved, but mine was conditioned on coming in for another interview and fingerprinting. I decided to ask why.

First I went to the Global Entry website and used their “contact us” feature and seven days later got a non-answer. So I then called the phone number, listened and responded to a number of prompts and then after 20 minutes of music got a person. His best answer: “You have a 50/50 chance of an unconditional renewal.” As my wife’s application was being approved, mine, by default, was being conditioned.

In all, and not counting the time spent by Marty (my wife) in filling out the initial paperwork, I probably had two hours invested along with no small amount of frustration. But then I told myself, this is nothing compared to the stories you read about people who can’t get answers to
much more important questions.

I decided to test the government response against a Google search. I typed in Global Entry renewal. Within a fraction of a second, the top two responses appeared. The first in order directed me to the government agency site and to a FAQ function. When clicked on, the FAQ access link said the database was down.

I then went to the second in order, One Mile at a Time, and was greeted by a fellow named Ben Schlappig, who states he is “obsessed with aviation, travel, and more specifically, using airline miles and credit card points to elevate the travel experience.” I quickly found out from Schlappig, whose nickname is Lucky, what I had spent two hours to find out from the government.

I have no idea how many government employees and contractors are involved in building and maintaining websites. Undoubtedly the answer is a lot. Then there are those who have to answer phone calls with barely more than a script. I suggest the various levels of government be put into a Google box.

While I am not that big on supplying more revenue to Google (or perhaps Bing), to me, we who pay and then get frustrated should demand that our enormous and complex government agencies become, in the jargon of the day, transparent, and easily so. This is especially true for agencies that field consumer inquiries.

Each day there are, I suspect, millions who need to ask questions about healthcare, taxes, military service benefits, and the like. They should be served up something other than unmasked complexity or telephone queues.

Of course, today the news is filled with high policy. How should healthcare risk be funded?

How should tax relief for one category of taxpayers be offset by increased rates or reduced deductions by some other group of taxpayers? Undoubtedly these are important questions, although seemingly our leaders are not able to answer them.

Maybe our leaders need to spend more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve me.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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