What Government Agencies Can Learn from a Good Marriage

GovLoop founder Steve Ressler says government and citizens must grow with each other every day.

A few weeks ago, I was at my county clerk’s office trying to get my marriage certificate. Like many folks in my generation, I’m having a ceremony, but it’s not in a church and my friend is the officiant. Therefore, I must get the official marriage certificate completed and signed at the clerk’s office before my actual wedding.

In my conversation with the customer service rep at the clerk’s office, two items struck me as to how my local government is failing to deal with change.

First, my fiancée is from Spain, so she has two last names. As a corn-fed Caucasian from Ohio, it took me awhile to understand it (you mean your mom’s last name is your middle name? No! I have two last names). When we were filling out the marriage license, the customer service rep attempted to input both surnames, but the system couldn’t deal with the situation — it wanted to hyphenate them. We explained it to the representative, who completely understood the situation. “It happens to me 10 times a day,” she said, “but the technology guy says we can’t fix the fields.” I live in Florida, where 22 percent of citizens are Hispanic, so this is not a rare problem.

Second, the customer service rep said she’s seen a spike in what she calls “yuppies” coming to the clerk’s office to get a marriage certificate before the wedding. She said it’s interesting, as it has increased the number of formerly rare questions (like how to get friends ordained in a given state), changed the popular times for people to come in, and changed the type of clientele. The agency, however, hasn’t made any changes to adapt to these needs.

This happens all the time to cities and counties. Your citizenry and their desires shift, but how do you keep up?

Companies deal with the same issue. Just a few months back, a new music company called Spotify entered the U.S. market with an unbeatable proposition — unlimited streaming music on your computer for free, but $10 per month for access from their mobile device. My best friend just shook his head. How can the whole music industry be supported by a $10 per month subscription on mobile versus buying CDs and iTunes? My local record shop has switched gears, selling less CD and vinyl, and morphing into a hybrid coffee shop/lunch spot with the remaining collectible records and memorabilia as art.

If my local record store can listen to customer demands, so should government. As budgets continue to shrink, government needs to constantly listen to citizen demands, whether they’re driven by changing demographics, new technologies or other issues.
A good friend recently gave me this advice about marriage: The key is to continually grow with each other every day, because if you’re not, one day you’ll look at each other, won’t know each other and will no longer be compatible.

To me, the analogy applies to government and citizens, whose relationship must be a two-way street, growing together — where government is continually listening to the demands and desires of its citizens. This is not an annual exercise, but a daily relationship with feedback to improve services.

Steve Ressler is the founder and president of GovLoop, a social networking site for government officials to connect and exchange information.

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