October 1, 2003
TO: Cari M. Dominguez, Chair Naomi C. Earp, Vice Chair Paul Steven Miller, Commissioner Leslie E. Silverman, Commissioner FROM: The Regional Attorneys
During the September 8, 2003, Commission meeting on "Repositioning for New Realities: Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness," Commissioner Miller requested the thoughts of the Regional Attorneys concerning implementing a National Contact Center. The views addressed herein respond to various aspects of the contact center as it is reported in the Executive Summary of the report, "Assessment of a National Contact Center Solution for EEOC."1 In arriving at the conclusions expressed here, a consensus was reached among the Regional Attorneys based upon (1) the Executive Summary, (2) the public comments by Work Group Chair Cynthia Pierre at the September 8 Commission meeting, and (3) collectively, many years of field experience.
The Regional Attorneys believe that the Commission should advance any effort to enhance our capability to assist the public and to provide excellent customer service. It appears, however, that, for whatever reason, the National Contact Center Work Group ("Work Group") limited its research and consideration to one and only one potential solution: a National Contact Center. Needless to say, this narrow inquiry troubles us. We believe it would be best to identify the problems, brainstorm all possible solutions, evaluate those solutions, and make recommendations about the best solutions. As management experts acknowledge, the final step in this process should only be made after discussion among all the impacted parties, which in this case would be our stakeholders. However, this does not appear to be the approach taken by the Work Group. For obvious reasons, we believe all other alternatives should be explored to solve the identified customer service problems.2
The Regional Attorneys also believe that in evaluating the recommendations from the Work Group the Commission needs to critically assess the reliability of the information on which those recommendations are based. Because the agency has not historically captured information on the numbers and types of calls received by District Offices, the Work Group conducted a month-long survey in an attempt to capture such information. Regional Attorneys have seen numerous employee activity surveys conducted for many different purposes. Our experience has been that survey forms and reports have routinely been completed "after-the-fact" at the end of the day or other reporting period and may reflect employees' desires to furnish information supportive of the project for which the information is sought. Thus, such surveys are frequently less than accurate. We are not comfortable with the idea that the results of the call survey which we saw being completed in our respective offices was, for example, accurate enough to determine that the differential between calls for general information and calls regarding the status of charges was only five percent. This is not an insignificant issue because if anecdotal evidence of unreturned calls regarding charge status, and the resulting public dissatisfaction, have been factors driving the perceived need for a national contact center, it should be understood that the proportion of such calls may be meaningfully greater than the 17% cited and that none of them would be addressed by the National Contact Center.
The Regional Attorneys are also concerned about the field's perceived secrecy of the Work Group process and recommendations. It is the collective experience of the Regional Attorneys that an open, inclusive process is the most effective method for effectuating meaningful change. Secrecy within an agency rarely serves the goal of making sound decisions. Instead, secrecy breeds distrust, suspicion, and rumors. And, more importantly, secrecy can deny a work group valuable input from others with relevant information. We are concerned about the secrecy during the process because representatives on the Work Group were not encouraged to share information with their respective constituencies to get feedback and ideas. We continue to be concerned by the fact that the Report of the Work Group remains restricted. We urge the Commission to continue open dialogue on both the alleged problems which the National Contact Center would address as well as discussion on all possible solutions to increase customer service and public confidence in the EEOC as we carry out our mission. With these general principles in mind, we turn our attention to comment on the specific recommendation of a National Contact Center.
The Regional Attorneys begin this discussion by stating the following principle: for the EEOC to pursue issues of employment discrimination and meet its mission to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, its contacts with the public must be protected and the agency must be assured that each and every inquiry will be properly addressed.
The establishment of a National Contact Center appears to be based upon the premise that the current system of answering calls from the public is in need of a comprehensive overhaul. This premise rests on several factors addressed in the Executive Summary, factors that range from the 52,000 hours that will be spent by staff in answering over one million unsolicited phone inquiries this year to reported incidents that EEOC staff have not been prompt or courteous in returning the public's phone Contacts. In addition, the phone systems used in many of the 51 field offices have failed to keep up with advances in technology. The Regional Attorneys support the goal of improving the quality and accessability of our customer service.
It appears from the Executive Summary that the EEOC's current phone technology in some of the field offices is woefully inadequate. The Regional Attorneys believe it is necessary for the Commission to address this issue with improved technology, regardless of the Commission's disposition on the implementation of a National Contact Center.
Next, the quality of responses must be addressed by management to assure that our customers receive our best product. The Executive Summary states that a National Contact Center will alleviate the burden on field office staff of answering routine inquiries, such as the office hours, addresses, etc. The Regional Attorneys agree that limiting inquiries to the tier one inquiries described in the Executive Summary could benefit all offices. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that "routine inquiries" are properly scrutinized so that important issues and needs are not overlooked. Thus, any solutions should be a win-win proposition for both the agency and the public whom we serve. The Regional Attorneys have real concerns about whether a National Contact Center achieves these goals.
According to the results of the telephone survey, 39 percent of the calls sought information about intake, 22 percent were for general information, and 17 percent sought information with regard to the status of a charge. Of the remaining 22 percent, the largest category was "Other" (9%) and "customer complaints" (6%). 61 percent of the calls from the public, therefore, are calls from which new investigative or law enforcement information could be elicited. Based on the survey results, should a National Contact Center be adopted, it will be important to inculcate all contact center agents with an understanding of the critical nature of the calls they receive because they will represent a major part of the EEOC's information-gathering responsibilities that enable us to enforce anti-discrimination laws.
Again, for obvious reasons, the Regional Attorneys have many questions about the selection of the "customer service agents" who will answer these calls. The Regional Attorneys could endorse a nationwide National Contact Center, with a Systems Administrator and leased technology to improve the ability of our customers to reach a live person, if the calls were then forwarded to appropriate and available EEOC staff to respond to the calls that are not tier one inquiries. Certainly, this approach would move us forward into the 21st century with appropriate technology while increasing our accessability and maintaining or increasing the quality of our customer service. This approach could provide maximum benefit for all involved at the lowest cost. The Regional Attorneys, however, do not see how contracting out the handling of routine calls to minimally trained, inexperienced contract employees, with a 30% turnover rate, would be cost effective or benefit our customers. It is our understanding that DOL's national call center only provides very basic information to callers, including the hours and locations of its local offices. Callers are immediately referred to local offices if they need any counseling, substantive information or express any interest in filing a complaint. This kind of national call center would be appropriate for the EEOC, in our opinion, if it was cost effective and the best solution to solving the problem of increasing customer service for these types of calls.
The Regional Attorneys seriously question whether the proposed 3-4 weeks from the execution of the contract is sufficient time to train call center agents regarding jurisdictional and substantive issues. In our experience, 3-4 weeks is a woefully inadequate amount of time to train new investigators about the laws we enforce. And we believe that the best customer service can only be provided if the individuals answering the inquiries have some basic knowledge of the laws enforced by the EEOC and the process by which to file a complaint. Certainly, the Commission does not intend to diminish the quality of the services it provides to potential charging parties by establishing a National Contact Center.
The Executive Summary suggests "scripts" as the solution to the lack of knowledge, training and experience issues. Again, it is our experience that "scripts" are not the answer. First, there will be numerous situations where the "script" will not cover the intended question: a caller must be able to rely on accurate information. Second, the complexity of our laws and nuances involved in them make scripts an unfeasible solution. Finally, a "script" is no substitute for knowledge. More importantly, it is our collective experience that adhering to a script narrows the person's thought processes, thereby limiting the information gathering. It is, therefore, critical that ongoing training of contact center agents be a key component in the operation of any National Contact Center. However, grave doubts exist regarding whether the proposed "scripts" and minimal training will ever be an adequate substitution for the knowledge, experience, support, and training of seasoned EEOC personnel.
It is contemplated by the Executive Summary that there will be a three-tier system designed to separate the questions by their complexity. The first tier will include frequently asked questions on EEOC laws and procedures, office locations and hours of operation. The Regional Attorneys do not oppose the use of a National Contact Center for these purposes, if it is cost effective and the staff is properly trained to answer questions regarding the laws enforced by the EEOC and its procedures.
The second tier will include persons seeking to file a charge or those seeking prescreening counseling under Priority Charge Handling Procedures. For the reasons stated above, we believe that this critical step of pre-screening counseling cannot appropriately be done by inexperienced persons with 3-4 weeks training on the four entirely different, complex and unique laws we enforce. We do fear, as the Executive Summary notes at page 7, "Potentially meritorious charges would be screened out due to the inexperience of contact center staff." Examples of only some of the complex issues an inexperienced screener would face include issues of disparate impact, ADEA benefits, language issues, IRCA issues, Americans with Disabilities Act issues, integrated enterprise issues, statute of limitations issues for local FEPAs, and jurisdictional issues. We are very concerned that the use of a National Contact Center to do pre-screening counseling will reduce the effectiveness of sound prescreening counseling, in conformance with Priority Charge Handling Procedures. There is no reference in the Executive Summary of any legal advice or lawyer support of these customer service agents. The Regional Attorneys question how the quality of our customer service will be improved with inexperienced, untrained, unsupported customer service agents reading from scripts.
Tier 3 inquiries, because of their complexity, will be transferred to the appropriate EEOC field office staff for resolution. Identifying Tier 3 inquiries by ill-trained agents appears very problematic. Assessing the underlying complexity of each call at the National Contact Center poses difficult issues. Adequate safeguards must be in place to assure that the public receives appropriate responses to simple questions which may have their roots in more complex issues, such as the need to seek preliminary relief.
Regarding the issue of providing a "consistent" delivery of information to the public, the Regional Attorneys question whether this goal is achievable. In addition to human nature, and individual differences of contact center agents, variations in the way questions may be presented to contact center agents, and their degree of understanding of the laws we enforce, will in and of itself provide some inconsistency. Certainly we all know from our own personal experience with national business call centers that consistency is not always achievable. For example, one could call a national cellphone carrier on one day to ask about a rate package only to be told something different a day later by another call center employee. This surely is a common and shared experience among cellphone customers and it is expected that the same will be true with an EEOC National Contact Center. While the goal of assuring that the public receives the best possible answers we can provide is commendable, certainly the public would agree that "correct" information is more important than "consistent" information.
The EEOC's current staff configuration and budget needs preclude the expansion necessary to hire new employees to increase our language capacity. Given the current hiring freeze and flat budgeting, it is unlikely this condition will change anytime soon. While it exists, it is likely that questions about employment discrimination by a number of people in the general public will go unanswered. Without question, the language capacity issue needs to continue to be addressed by the EEOC as the nation's workforce grows more diverse everyday.
A case has been presented that a National Contact Center contractor must use and maintain state-of-the-art technology in order to remain competitive among other similar service providers. The Regional Attorneys would recommend that a portion of the National Contact Center budget be utilized to address the inadequateness of our current delivery system of information to the public. We could then contract with a systems administrator and/or lease the technology as part of a National Contact Center, which would handle Tier 1 questions, if it is cost effective. The National Contact Center would then refer all Tier 2 and Tier 3 questions to live, available EEOC staff, using the technology to ensure an immediate live response. We believe that this would be an excellent solution to the problems of customer service accessability.
The Regional Attorneys note that some field offices currently utilize systems and designs which appear to meet customer demands. The Regional Attorneys agree with the District Directors, who in their response to the NAPA report, commented: "(a) existing systems should be looked at with sufficient care so that already-existing systems are used or expanded/modified if that is effective and less costly than investing in others' technology and (b) due to their costs advantages, emphasis be given to these ‘interactive voice recorder' systems and the other advantages ‘modern telecommunications' technology can provide."
Because of our concerns about the quality of our customer service, we are very troubled about the cost of implementing a National Contact Center. When asked at the Commission meeting about this vital issue, the Chair of the Work Group admitted there would be no cost savings. In these hard times, we believe it will be difficult to justify the expense of establishing the National Contact Center. We have heard that the National Contact Center may cost up to $8 million in the first year of operation and at least $1 million a year thereafter. If such funds are available we are not convinced that they can be best utilized by funding a National Contact Center.
Moreover, many unanswered questions remain about out-of-pocket costs. Questions also remain unanswered about "hidden" costs to the agency, such as EEOC staff time to "train" customer service agents and EEOC staff time to write the "scripts." The only way to guarantee the efficacy of this training/education is to have it done by EEOC staff. The Regional Attorneys believe that our resources can be best used in acquiring the most up-to-date technology for our current offices and providing customer service training to current EEOC staff.
The Regional Attorneys recognize that given the impact of the current hiring freeze that remaining field staff have shouldered the burden of tremendously increased responsibilities. Erosion of staff has occurred in just about every area of operation: managers, supervisors, investigators, attorneys, paralegals, and support staff. The burden of covering a growing number of inquiries, whether they are from the mail, phone contacts, or walk-ins, falls directly on the meager number of front-line employees whose duty it is to respond to the public. It is true that any assistance in lessening the burden of intake and phone duties will be greatly appreciated. This cannot, however, be done at a cost to the EEOC's mission.
We feel that we have been placed in a catch 22: as justification for a National Contact Center, we are told we are failing to meet the needs of the public because we have limited staff and an inadequate phone system; yet for years nothing has been done to alleviate the drainage of personnel or enhance the technology.
The Regional Attorneys believe that a National Contact Center could be utilized in handling Tier 1 contacts if it is cost effective and the staff are properly trained to recognize when a call raises issues beyond Tier 1 calls. We do, however, strongly urge that, before investing millions on an untested, unproven, or uncertain program, certain aspects of our law enforcement delivery system must be guaranteed. In addition, more effort should be made to put resources into the systems that we know work, like fully staffed offices, rather than investing millions into unproven schemes. For the reasons outlined above, as Regional Attorneys, we concur with or recommend that, at a minimum, the following should occur before any implementation of a National Contact Center is made:
Finally, in addition to our recommendations, many Concerns / Questions about a National Contact Center remain. These include the following:
The Regional Attorneys believe that the EEOC should take this opportunity to be a leader in the provision of a high quality, national, customer-service-oriented program. We look forward to the opportunity to continue to work on these and other issues with the Commission.
cc: Eric Drieband, General Counsel James Lee, Deputy General Counsel Gwendolyn Reams, Associate General Counsel District Directors Cynthia Pierre, National Contact Center Work Group Chair
1Because the Regional Attorneys have been informed that the full report is administratively restricted and not publicly available, nothing in this memorandum is predicated upon or in response to that report; rather, as indicated above, this memorandum is based upon and responds exclusively to publicly available information.
2The Regional Attorneys support the overall concept of a working group to deal with these types of issues. The Regional Attorneys also agree that the overall structure of the Work Group was appropriate as it included a Regional Attorney, District Director and other staff from the field and Headquarters. This type of structure permits the gathering of information from multiple sources and perspectives in the agency, a critical step whenever major change is contemplated.
3We note that recent publicity on the use of a National Call Center for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services suggests that customer service and satisfaction has decreased with increased usage of a national call center staffed by contract employees. GovExec.com (September 29, 2003).
This page was last modified on October 8, 2003.
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