Program tries to make government more citizen-friendly Texas, Missouri, Wash. to test hassle-free service

November 27, 1998|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

WASHINGTON -- Imagine an RV rumbling up to the local

senior center full of people who, on the spot, could untangle your Social Security problem, review your property tax assessment, sell you a mass-transit pass and register you to vote.

Or, maybe it's midnight in early April, and you need an obscure tax form. Go to the local post office. There, with a few keystrokes, a computer in the 24-hour lobby will spit out the appropriate Internal Revenue Service form.

Get ready. Vice President Al Gore wants to use services such as these to make Dallas and Fort Worth a "Hassle-free Zone."

Since summer, platoons of local, state and federal bureaucrats -- along with a few private-sector participants -- have gathered in borrowed conference rooms across the region to find better ways to work together and deliver government services.

"I don't know why people haven't thought of it before," said Candy Kane, the Washington-based coordinator for three Hassle-free Communities pilot projects. Others are under way in Seattle and Kansas City, Mo.

"Our experience in talking with people is that what they expect from government is the very best, convenient, seamless, hassle-free service."

Carolyn Newman, intergovernmental affairs manager for the city of Dallas, is a project participant.

Newman said: "Citizens don't know what level of government does what. A lot of them don't care. They just need help with a problem. Everyone's had hassles with the government, the run-around, the City Hall shuffle -- whatever you call it."

On Dec. 7, the first changes of the Hassle-free program make their debut:

When the General Services Administration's white, "Hassle-free RV" rolls out, it will be full of service providers specific to its destination, said Elizabeth Salih, the pilot Hassle-free project's "team leader."

For a college campus visit, staff on board might include U.S. Department of Education experts on student aid, Texas employment services personnel and Dallas County voter registrars.

During tax-filing season, the RV will carry experts who can assist with questions about local, state or federal taxes.

A more stationary format includes a "Hassle-free Center" planned for the new clinic at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center. One day each month, all manner of federal, state and local officials will be on hand to tend to veterans' needs.

For example, the Texas Workforce Commission and the federal Office of Personnel Management will field employment inquiries. The Texas Veterans Land Board and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will grapple with housing concerns.

Adoption information on electronic kiosks will be placed in the lobbies of the federal office buildings in Dallas and Fort Worth. On display will be photographs and other information about Texas children in need of permanent homes.

More locations in other federal and county buildings are on tap, officials said.

Other, planned low-profile changes include distributing to travel agents U.S. Customs Service brochures on what items travelers may bring into the country.

That helps travelers, Salih said, and helps Customs if people know in advance what the law allows.

The pilot project is emblematic of Gore's little-noticed, five-year effort to "reinvent government."

The theory is that people will support and respect the kind of government services needed in a free and responsible society only if those services are well-managed and expertly delivered.

Experts said the new project would succeed only with long-term commitment.

"Management -- in the public and private sectors -- is subject to fads, which are good things but often fleeting," said James Pfiffner, a George Mason University government professor.

Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin professor who has examined state and federal government reforms, said, "The problem for most bureaucracies is that this kind of cooperation is an unnatural act."

Even with sustained effort, he said, "There is every reason to expect it will fall apart except for one: People, in the end, expect the government to solve their problems."

Individual agencies are re-examining their missions.

For example, officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a project participant, say it's not enough to interdict illegal drugs and enforce the nation's drug-trafficking laws.

"We have to play on all fields," said Julio Mercado, the DEA special agent in charge in Dallas. "We have to educate. We have to have intervention programs."

Agency officials say they've long understood the benefits of cooperation. Some began brainstorming in smaller groups on their own. The Gore reinventing-government umbrella gave them structure, a specific mandate and a sense of urgency, several participants said.

"I think what we found in Texas is, we can't call this Gore's initiative because this is George Bush's state," said Levy with the court advocates. "We're a part of it, but we want this to survive whether Gore is the next president or not."

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