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The Problem With Wait Times at Government Offices

I’m not going to blow your mind when I say that public services offices are often busy places. It’s something we’ve all come to learn.

From DMVs to passport and visa application centers, long waiting is practically synonymous with the public service sector.

The problem is, civil service departments offer many different services and cater to customers from different backgrounds. This is what leads to queues, crowded-up lobbies, delays and, ultimately, pressure on both citizens and staff.

As a result, a simple action of renewing one’s driver’s license eats up into your free time. And most of this idle time is spent waiting.

In this article, we will take a look at what exactly makes government offices so slow and inefficient, and how they can fix this.

Why government offices need to ditch take-a-number queuing systems

On a bit of a personal note, I recently needed an emergency passport. (“I don’t need it now, I need it NOW!”)

To my equal mixture of surprise and delight (surplight?), the passport was printed out and issued within two days. In that regard, my local Police and Border Guard Board get an A+.

That is not to say that my queuing experience was good.

My queue ticket stated, in bold numbers 500. Now, this seems like it should be fairly straightforward.

Hell, it’s even a perfectly round number!

The problem was, none of the numbers shown on the waitlist in the lobby was anywhere close to 500. The closest was somewhere in the 120s, while there were also numbers far exceeding 2000.

Am I close to the finishing line? Do these two-thousand-something numbers loop back around to hundreds? Is my type of request a low priority for them? Or what if there was a glitch and they gave me the wrong number?

These were the kind of questions that were racing through my mind until I, finally, saw a notification on the waitlist display that matched the number on my ticket.

I’m not going to go all drama queen on you and pretend that it was some catastrophic event. In the grand scheme of things, this was a surprisingly and delightfully surplightfully wholesome experience.

But this bluster is all too common. When we see numbers that are of a more or less sequential nature (e.g., 12, 13, 14, etc.), we expect a bigger number to follow the one before it.

Not so with take-a-number queuing systems, as we’ve already covered times and times again before.

This is not dissimilar to the anxiety that happens to us at a fast food restaurant.

wait times at mcdonalds

A big part of the frustration is not knowing how long your wait is going to last. And public services offices are notoriously bad at communicating that.

In 2019, a couple had to wait more than an hour at the Michigan Secretary of State branch office to renew their driver’s license.

“You never know when your number will be called. You don’t want to miss it.”

The result is fifty-something people nervously glancing at their queue tickets every two seconds for hours on end, out of fear of missing their call and having to start from square one.

How waiting lines in government offices are formed

According to Professor Nick Haslam, from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, queuing is a “social norm that is governed by unspoken rules promoting efficiency and equality”.

So what causes queues at government offices?

To put it simply, queues are a symptom of a mismatch between supply and demand. When there is more demand for the service than there are service providers, waiting lines are inevitable.

Inefficient and inconsistent practices that are characteristic of public service departments lead to infamously long wait times.

Managing the workforce in the public service sector

Wait time is the average waiting time of customers currently waiting for each service type. Wait times may vary due to the dynamic nature of visitor traffic and the difference between all service types.

The obvious first step to reducing wait times would be to hire more staff.

Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints, constant cost reduction targets and staff cuts, government departments are not flexible enough to accommodate hiring and training new employees.

The solution, then, is to invest in a smart queue management technology that helps staff recognize the bottlenecks and holdups in customer service.

Such a wait line management solution will:

  • reduce the time needed to complete administrative tasks
  • cut down the workload
  • reduce the demands on service representatives
  • give the staff an insight into underlying issues of their service strategy
  • let service agents focus on providing a higher standard of customer service

The proper queue management loadout of a government office would look like this (pre-COVID, at least):

  1. A citizen walks into a location and signs himself/herself for a particular type of service using an iPad check-in kiosk.

  2. A waitlist installed in the lobby displays current wait times during office hours, letting the citizen know how long the wait is and when their ticket is called.

  3. The citizen also gets timely SMS notifications, so that even if they are away, they can be sure they’re not missing their turn.

  4. A centralized service dashboard, which lets government service agents manage the customer crowd from one location and gain actionable data insights.

The benefits of a queue management system

Employing an electronic queue management system not only streamlines the service flow and helps reduce the workload of service agents.

In essence, it optimizes resource utilization, thus increasing staff efficiency.

Enabling self-service for citizens improves their experience and puts them in control. This way, they can confirm their attendance from a kiosk or from their mobile devices.

Additionally, this helps reduce cancellations, no-shows and walkaways.

These typically occur as a result of time mismanagement — tired of waiting for their turn or at least some clarification, some customers balk and leave the queue.

Citizen satisfaction with federal government services has been consistently in decline, and is at an all-time low.

citizen satisfaction with government services

Unlike the retail sector, government agencies cannot employ the same tactics to meet or exceed their customers’ needs. Perhaps the only common factor is the option to allow self-service as a way to check in.

Now, you may think that there’s little benefit to customer satisfaction when it comes to essential services like passport renewal, but there is a deep, mutual connection between customer happiness, employee engagement and performance.

Solving customer wait times with remote queuing

Another option for a safe check-in is to offer a way to gauge the level of activity, so that a visitor could choose to go at a more opportune time or, ideally, pre-check into a queue.

Qminder offers Visit Planner, which is a small website that displays real-time information about your location and waiting lines.

Visit Planner helps your visitors find, at a glance, the ideal time to visit your location. Visit Planner visualizes live visit data, i.e. it represents how active your location is right now.

recommended time to visit

Based on this data (hourly foot traffic, off-peak hours, etc.), it recommends the best time to visit. No longer prospective customers need to guess when is the most opportune moment for a visit.

This is all well and good in and of itself, but Visit Planner also lets customers sign in remotely. They can join a virtual queue without the need to be physically present at the location.

Customers can use remote sign-in for contactless queuing, and then wait for their turn from a safe distance outside or in their car, which is invaluable for queue management with social distancing.

When government clerks call up the customers when they’re ready to service them, this eliminates crowded-up lobbies.

Additionally, Visit Planner lets you include contact information and special notes to help your customers better prepare for their visit.

Read more about Visit Planner and its features here.

COVID-19 precautionary measures when queuing in government offices

Since 2020 is not over yet, we must be cautious about public gatherings — and what’s more public than public service?

There’s no point in repeating all of the social distancing and personal safety rules. It’s been covered to death already.

Suffice to say, entry into the government lobby areas should be limited to only those receiving service, unless an accompanying person or caretaker is needed.

To mitigate the risks in your public services waiting area, you need to manage customer arrival flow. And there is no surer way to do that than via queue management.

A queue management system helps:

  • Maintain social distancing while providing services to citizens
  • Keep safety standards in government offices
  • Manage customer arrival flow
  • Keep waiting areas clear

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is here to stay for a bit longer, so arming your business with a queue management tool is insuring yourself against major health and safety risks.

Read more about our customers in the public service sector and how Qminder solves social distancing in waiting areas.

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