Part of the meaning of “family-centered services” is providing good customer service. It means developing the habit of seeing yourself and your office through the eyes of the parents who interact with you, and reorganizing your work to become more responsive. Customer service is right in the center of the bubble chart—part of our core business.
What do you want from the child support program as a custodial mom, as a custodial dad, as a grandmother? First of all, you want results. You want the other parent to pay. You don’t want to waste your time. You don’t want to sit in a waiting room or in a phone queue. You don’t want to fill out paperwork over and over again. You want to get your questions answered. You want a clear understanding of what will happen to you in the process. You want to feel safe. You might want to apply for other programs, such as SNAP and SSI, if only someone would ask you. You don’t want to be judged. You want your worker to know what you are up against.
And if you are a noncustodial dad or mom? You want the worker to understand the complexity and sorrow of your life. You want to be treated as a parent, not a wallet. You want to be respected and understood. You want the system to work with you, not against you. You don’t want to be judged. You don’t want to be humiliated. You want a chance to make things right. You need a job. You want to see your kids. You want for your children what you might never have had.
Every one of us has had good and bad customer experiences. And we can identify precisely what went right or wrong in those experiences. Usually, when things go right, we feel that we matter, we feel heard, we are engaged in the process, and we can maintain some control over the outcome—whether we are ordering online, fixing a problem with a bill, or sitting in a hospital waiting room.
The child support program has a deep culture of innovation. Innovation starts with every worker and every manager saying out loud:
Do you know what I saw? What I heard? What I read?
What if we …?
Why do we…?
We ought to try….
As child support offices around the country know, technology is part of the answer to providing good quality customer service, especially in a time of budget cutbacks. Technology can help us reach a new generation of parents, many of whom get their information through the internet. We can expand customer-friendly, interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can post short videos with real customers to speak for our program and develop apps that make our internet services easy to use. We can encourage parents to apply for services online and link parents to such resources as benefit calculators and program navigators.
But technology is not the whole answer. When states were implementing statewide computer systems in the 1990s, the prevailing idea was that we would become efficient collection agencies—highly automated, impersonal, with minimal caseworker intervention. Now we know that that approach is not enough. We need to build in the missing ingredient in our program—parental engagement. The money is important. But what we know now is that child support is about more than just money; it’s about families.