Helping People Navigate Government Services


Navigating government services can sometimes feel like finding your way through a forest

Years ago a coworker who lived in a large city in the United States told me a story about how he needed to get a permit from the city’s building department to make improvements at his home. He said he tried for a very long time, but had no luck getting the permit in a timely manner. He felt his application had dropped into a black hole. According to him, many had the same experience. So much so that there are people who hang out at the city building offices in the hall who you can hire to advocate on your behalf with the city staff to review and issue your permit. They have a relationship with the staff and know well how to navigate the system. As soon as he hired one of these people, he got his permit.

I don’t have any personal knowledge of this situation so cannot verify my coworker’s story, although there seemed to be no reason for me not to believe it is true. Also, there have been studies showing it can be difficult for the average citizen to navigate government services or know how to work within the system to have their issues addressed in a timely manner. A few years back, GSA published this study, “Expectations and challenges, Informing the future of the Federal Front Door,” which looked at understanding the public’s overall experience interacting with government. The study revealed people primarily depend on their family and friends for help with navigating government services. They also don’t understand many of the processes involved with providing those services. While the study didn’t seem to ask if people understood which level of government delivers which services, I believe that can be an issue for people too. The study did report that sometimes people are also not sure if a service is provided by government or a private entity which leads to more misunderstanding.

So what can be done to improve people’s understanding of government services and how to best navigate the system? It seems in that one city, people have stepped in to help others, although they only do so for a fee. Instead of taking that approach, it made me wonder if it would be possible to take advantage of the knowledge and skills of retired government workers. If a non-profit organization was set up with retired government workers as members who are interested in volunteering their time, could this serve as a resource for people to turn to? There are a lot of retired folks who are looking for volunteering opportunities and the skills retired government workers bring are wide-ranging and at an advanced level.

While there is no such volunteer organization available now, I came across a site, which seems like it could help out.  It’s a site for people who are willing to offer free coaching in a multitude of topics as well as a site for those looking for some free coaching. The site does suggest to coaches not to offer too many free sessions because if you are a professional coach, it can devalue your services. But I was thinking a lot of time average citizens who need help with government are usually only looking for help with one or two issues. So if you are an experienced government worker or one who is retired and looking for ways to help others understand and navigate government, this site might be a place where you can offer your expertise.



The Metaverse Code

City Hall on SanFrancisco Zoo Sim in Second LifeIt was only a matter of time. Throughout history, whenever people have come together and formed a dependence on each other for their physical, social, and economic well-being, they've eventually had to create some form of governance. The Old Testament, a type of code that governed a group of people no matter where they lived, is one of the oldest examples we have of a document of governance. We have also seen people develop documents of governance intended to be implemented based on a physical location such as a nation, state, or city. And this need for governance is also found in organizations and businesses because the framework in which people interact is not the trigger – it's the interaction that triggers the need for governance. And so today we are watching as this age-old practice of establishing rights and responsibilities becomes an essential need in our virtual communities.

Over the weekend, Vanish Firecaster posted an excellent beginning to an "Avatar Bill of Rights," and I encourage anyone involved in virtual worlds to read through it. While rights are important, they are not the only part of the equation. To be successful, people need their rights to be balanced with responsibilities. Last year I helped facilitate the development of a participation agreement for people who want to access the MOSES grid. During the open discussions we held to develop the document, we covered expectations, behavior, responsibility, and rights. While the choices made for each of these in MOSES is much different than what would be developed for a public and social virtual world, the process is the same. And the final agreement, which provides for a type of governance, is necessary to ensure the grid or virtual world operates in a successful and organized manner. In the case of MOSES, it also ensures those who enter and interact with others in that setting do so with a clear understanding of everyone's role and responsibilities.

It's really no different from what we have in the places where we live. I'm not sure how it is set up in other countries, but in the United States, we have federal laws to define and protect our rights. But those are not enough. The founders of our country realized each state and local region would need to further refine and develop rights and responsibilities in order to maintain order and protect people and meet their specific needs. So each of us in the U.S. accepts a different set of rules and resonsibilities based on the state and/or city where we live. And if we don't want to accept them we can either try to change them, or we can move.

Hill Valley Courthouse Mall

Perhaps in developing virtual rights and responsibilities, or a Metaverse Code, we could follow a similar type of framework. We could begin as Vanish has done and define the rights including those identified by the founders because they are "natural and inalienable rights." Then each grid, which is a type of city or region, can develop and further define these rights and responsibilities based on the culture or population dependent on that place. It would function as specific code for that grid and fit within the umbrella of the Metaverse Code and any laws imposed by the physical world. And the people who make up the population of a specific grid, even if owned by an individual or company, should help develop the code because a "government" only gets its authority from the people. And yes, I realize a private grid is owned by a private person, and they certainly can try to make up their own rights and responsibilities to impose on everyone, but without acceptance of their authority, they will face an empty grid. So it is in the best interests of their grid, if they expect people to invest time and money there, to allow those same people to have a voice in the governance of that grid.

Knight Sculpture

In the spirit of exploring the idea of governments and virtual worlds, Vanish set up a meeting on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at 4 pm CST to discuss the topic. If you have an interest in either government or virtual worlds, I highly suggest stopping by to add your voice to the conversation or even just to observe. The site is currently set to be held in OSGrid on the Public Works sim. But because some people who want to attend are banned from entering OSGrid, he will probably move it to another grid. So make sure to keep checking the listing to see the final location.



Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

Today's post is a break from my usual "A Day in the Life. . ." series. This break is due to two reasons: taking time off for the holiday and working on a project I am submitting to the Federal Virtual World Challenge.

The Growing Digital Community

Lately I've been thinking a lot about communities. I guess this isn't too unusual because I tend to do this anyway as part of my job working for local government. But lately it's been different. And as crazy as it sounds, I think playing Farmville started it all. Yes, aside from inspiring me to dream up an agriculturally themed set of Transformers, playing Farmville has also driven home the point that I have truly become part of a community other than the one in which I physically live. (Which, by the way, why is Farmville selling stuffed animals when they could have been selling a whole line of these cool Transformers!?)

Sure some of the people I am neighbors with on Farmville are people I know offline – one is even a best friend from high school. But there are also many who I have only known through our mutual use of virtual worlds like Second Life. I don't know all of them as well as I knew my best friend – the majority of people I know from Second Life are more like acquaintances and most are people I have never physically met. But other than the difference of meeting digitally vs. physically, there seems to be little difference from the types of relationships I have offline. I am normally best friends with only a few and acquaintances with many. Some I may only know by name because I hear about their work or see their name in the paper. And this is also how I know of many in Second Life.

The Management of Second Life

So it was with these thoughts I read several blog posts about the resignation of Kimberly Salzer (Kim Linden), former VP of Marketing at Linden Lab – the creators and hosts of Second Life. Two posts in particular ( Communications and the Lab. Again, by Inara Pey, and A Rosedale by Any Other Name… by Aeonix Aeon.) explored Salzer's work, her influence on Second Life, and why it seems that the people running the ship seem to have forgotten they have passengers. I agree with much of what they have observed and with most of their suggestions for improvement. Yes, Linden Lab needs to come to the realization they have created an actual place that people depend on for meeting people, learning, having fun, hanging out, and for some, earning an income. Second Life is not a game any more than Chicago is a game because the Bears, Sox, Cubs, Bulls, and Blackhawks play games there.

In a way, the company reminds me of a parent who had such great hopes and dreams for their child to grow up and fit their mold of the perfect child. But the child grew up and become their own person with their own hopes and dreams that were much different than what the parent had planned. And now the parent is in denial or at least agitated. They don't seem to know or recognize this person who came home for Thanksgiving. At times, they don't know how to treat them. And the big question is will they accept the fact that the future of their child is not entirely under their control or will they, like some parents who fall into this trap, spend their time trying to convince their grown-up child that the parent will always know what is best for the child?

As caretakers of our communities, those of us who are public servants can also fall into this trap. We can think that our idea of how the community should look, operate, or function is best. But the citizens might think very differently. And this group vision can change over time. This is why we have a structure in place to manage the operation of our communities and why we regularly update strategic plans and create new comprehensive plans.

For a few years now, I've often thought the system we have in place in local government would work well for Second Life. There is such a similarity between the community that is Second Life and the community in which we physically spend time. So I have been waiting for Linden Lab to see this same comparison. And yet they have not. And I wondered why.

I started thinking after reading the posts today that most people probably aren't intimately aware of what exactly goes on in government. In fact, based on recent articles in newspapers, people probably get the impression that nothing really gets done by government – there's only a bunch of lazy, uneducated, not-good-enough-to-get-a-job-in-private-industry people sitting around doing nothing at all waiting to retire to collect a fat pension. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. There's a whole system in place for managing communities that's been developed over thousands of years. Is it perfect? No, because communities are people, and people are not easily managed, but the system works most of the time. We all are supported by our local governments, and most of us provide this support so well that people have forgotten we are even here working for them 24/7. So maybe the Lab doesn't seriously consider this as a solution because they just aren't familiar with it.

Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

So, I'm adding my voice to the others out there offering suggestions to the Lab. And I've laid out below a beginning framework of operation based on how we manage physical communities. And because the digital space has some challenges and issues unlike many we normally deal with, the framework would have to be refined over time. In the end, I figure this structure could fit within the structure of a private business like Linden Lab, and it can't do any worse than the current setup.  

Applying a Local Government Management Structure to Second Life

Here is a brief description of what I was thinking about the basic function for each.

Chief Adminstrator – this is normally the city manager who provides the overall structure and leadership for the team. This person also makes sure the team is working towards meeting goals set by the strategic plan and doing so within budgetary limits. For Second Life this would be the CEO (Rodvik).

Community – this is the most important part of the structure because without a community there is no reason for this organization. For Second Life, this would be all the users/customers.

Community Board – this is normally the elected body chosen by the community to represent their interests in management of the community. For Second Life, I would suggest that the community be divided into regions based on what would make sense to the users. Some suggestions are: mainland, private land, adult land, etc. And then allowing premium members from each region to vote for their representatives to serve on this board. Based on offline experience and current in-world active population, I would also suggest limiting this elected board to 20 members with 2 from each region and a term of 2 years for each. Of course, because Second Life is a private company, not an actual government, this board can only serve in an advisory capacity.


Legal – the function of this office is straightforward and probably already in place at Linden Lab. However, perhaps this department could be expanded to offer services to the Premium members of Second Life. There's such a large group of users who are developing new content and products, perhaps a small office to offer advice on the legal aspect of trademarks, patents, and business would be helpful.

Finance – the function of this office is also obvious and also probably already in place at Linden Lab. Based on feedback from users, I would only suggest beefing up the customer service aspect. Perhaps adding a 311 type center that would not only deal with billing but all "citizen" service communication would be helpful. I realize Linden Lab must already have something like this, but patterning it off the 311 system might help improve its operation.

Communication/Public Relations – again, the Lab must already have something like this – perhaps it is their marketing department. It just seems that they could do more not only in-world, but in the physical world.

Human Relations – another typical office that is most likely already in place at Linden Lab for personnel and other employee issues.

Community Development – in local government this office helps carry out the community plans, helps develop policies, oversees building and development within the community, enforces zoning and other policies. These functions could be applied to the world of Second Life. We've already seen that zoning was eventually needed and applied. We also already have "building" policies and requirements that need to be enforced. I think most people who have used Second Life for quite some time would easily see how the work of this office could be implemented in-world. And they'd probably have some additional suggestions for this office.

Economic Development – like in our physical world, the economic growth and success of the community is vital. In local government, this office acts a liason to business, analyzes business and tourism within the city, supports local businesses and those looking at setting up a business. And the office promotes tourism and marketing of the community. Staff can also oversee events and act as a liason and offer support for groups hosting events in the community. Again, I think most residents of Second Life could easily see how the work of htis office could be implemented in Second Life.

Public Works – of all the departments in local government, this is the one that would be the least similar in its application to the virtual environment. In the physical world, public works provides and maintains physical infrastructure like roads, water, sewers, and electricity. But there's no need of these things in a virtual environment. Instead there is hardware and software supporting the operation, access, and management of the world. And there is the in-world infrastructure already created and maintained by the existing Linden Lab Public Works department.

Education – this office is not always a function of local government. However, because of the needs of the users in Second Life, it does seem that it would be a beneficial office to maintain. It would support training for Lab employees as well as education of users. This is probably already a function in place at Linden Lab. An office for outreach to educational efforts on the grid and educational institutions operating in the physical world would also be useful.


Citizen committees provide an important function for local government. They can help focus community interest and efforts and help advise management. Committees would be helpful in Second Life, and there is already somewhat of a structure in place in Second Life to work with. I've listed a few committee suggestions, but I'm sure the users of Second Life would have other suggestions. It would also be helpful for the Lab to offer a small budget for each committee to help them carry out their goals.


Another important process used by local government is to hold public hearings to help develop strategic plans, comprehensive plans, zoning changes, fee changes, etc. Public hearing feedback is normally advisory in nature, but can help prevent development of bad policy and unsuccessful projects.

Of course, I realize Linden Lab will probably never implement this, but I figured it was worth a shot at putting it out there for discussion.






A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 72

Day 72

Government Day

In the morning, several of us participated in the city's government day. For this event, we invite students from the high school to spend the day with us learning more about what we do. We all met at city hall to pick up the students assigned to us and then headed out to take them on a tour of public works facilities. First we went to the wastewater plant where our operator told them about the treatment process. Then we all went to the water plant to see how we treat the drinking water. We also stopped at our public works offices and garage to show them the equipment and check out the GIS department. And finally we toured our generation facility where we have five large engines that run on natural gas and generate up to 30 MW of power. After the tour, we met up with other staff and students from city hall to eat lunch.

Miscellaneous (& still no response from PACE on the bid tab!)

The rest of the day was spent handling a lot of small, miscellaneous issues. Our concrete contractor was in town pouring the last of the sidewalks that were removed to correct trip hazards. I also contacted IDOT to find out some answers to questions about material inspection for a past job. Our consultant putting together the easements for the water main extension revised the incorrect plat and got it back to us. And I tried to call PACE one last time to check on where my bid tab is for that job – they still have not gotten it to me, and I believe they have gone past the legal date for doing so. Rather than immediately contact the attorney general's office, I thought I would call one last time to see why they have not sent me the bid tab. But no one answered the phone so I had to leave a message. If I don't hear from them soon, I will unfortunately have to contact the state to notify them they are delinquent on filling my FOIA request. I just don't understand what the big deal is about releasing a simple bid tab for a project worth over a million dollars.



Can I Get Some Customer Service with that Insult?

Welcoming All Problems - photo by zachtrek on FlickrFortunately I rarely experience terrible customer service. But this weekend, I had one of those incidents where someone whose job it is to provide service chose instead to throw out subtle insults and avoid  trying to understand or address a problem for which they are responsible. So I thought it'd be a good topic to explore. It also made me think of one of my favorite TV shows: The IT Crowd. This is a British humor show that used to be available online. The show revolves around a corporate IT department consisting of two men and their supervisor. One of the funny parts of the show is when employees of the company call the department to get help with their computer. The two men always ask "have you tried turning it off and on?" This is so common of a response that they have even recorded it so the phone can be answered automatically and the response given without them getting involved. For these IT experts, turning your computer off and on is a very obvious first solution to try, but they never make fun of the person asking them for help – well at least not directly to them. The humor comes more from how regularly they have to say the same thing over and over to the point that they seem to say it without thinking. Then if their suggestion of turning it off and on doesn't work, they go off to provide the service for which they get paid and usually on the way get into all kinds of mischief.

Don't insult people because they don't know what you know

In engineering, we also have people who call with problems that to us seem to have very obvious solutions. The key to providing great customer service is understanding that we only know what we know because we have been trained and have experience in that specific topic, and we are entrusted with helping others out who don't know. We also should not expect or be upset because someone comes to us for help – it's part of our job to help people. So if someone calls asking for information or help, we should not respond by insulting them for not knowing what we know or making them feel bad. Sometimes this can be difficult because we can offend without meaning to. It can be a fine line between helping someone understand and insulting them by assuming they know nothing. To avoid this, I usually try to figure out the baseline for their knowledge about what we are dicussing and work from there. 

Dont' insult people because they need your help

Customer service is also difficult because people are usually calling because they have a problem and many times are not happy. And even though they might have completely misunderstood, we need to remain focused on understanding their problem and helping them figure out a solution. Insulting them or being rude or mean is not conducive to fixing the problem. I saw an excellent example of this on the show Hoarders the other night. A woman who was a hoarder was having a complete meltdown and yelling at everyone including the case worker. But the case worker, instead of allowing herself to be drawn into the battle, remained calm and focused on her objective – helping this woman to part with all her stuff.

Failing at customer service is failing to perform your job

If our job includes customer service, and we fail to successfully provide it, then we are failing at performing part of our job duties. So while some may fail because they haven't been trained in providing it, or they don't understand the points above, some people have suggested to me that a certain type of person will fail on purpose to keep you from bugging them. Their theory is that if someone is obnoxious and insulting every time you talk to them, eventually you seek help elsewhere and leave them alone. This would obviously be a work avoidance tactic. And it surprises me that people would do this because I would think at some point, people doing this would no longer be needed – they have trained people to get by without them!

Insults are ok if the service is outstanding?

Not sure if everyone would agree on this one. But it makes me think of the time I once worked on a job with a contractor who was very arrogant, obnoxious, and insulting. Even so, his company performed well, he did everything I asked, and I had no problems on the entire project. One day we were walking on the job, and he was explaining how he was having difficulty getting a piece of equipment for the project. He said he didn't think the person working for the supplier liked him very much. I told him it was probably because he was so rude and insulting. Fortunately I knew he was the type of guy that didn't take offense to such brutal honesty. He instead seemed genuinely surprised and mentioned how well we got along so he wouldn't have expected me to think that. So I told him he was rude and insulting to me too, but I didn't care and ignored it because he did such an outstanding job. I wasn't there on the job to be best buds – I was there to successfully complete a project, and we were accomplishing that goal. 

I have also heard of restaurants that operate under this theme. If you go to their establishment, they are rude to you, but supposedly people keep going back because the place is so awesome and the food is so good. So although I would not advocate this approach to customer service, I suppose the lesson here would be if you are going to be insulting and rude, you better be pretty darn good. But unfortunately I suspect most who are insulting are exhibiting that behavior to mask non-performance.

So who is really responsible for improving customer service?

I'll use a sports analogy here even though I'm not really a sports person. If a pitcher is choking who do the fans get upset with? Yes, they are probably annoyed with the pitcher – perhaps he pushed himself too hard or is having  a bad day or skipped too many trainings. But in the end only one person can pull him out of there. If the team has any chance of winning, the coach must be the one to assess the situation and make the call to send in a relief pitcher. Then it's the job of the coach to figure out what's wrong and help his player get back up to acceptable performance levels. 

So my experience this weekend not only made me more reflective of my own performance as I help citizens. It also renewed my determination to do a better job myself, and it made me more aware that I have  a responsibility for those who I manage. I need to make sure they are consistently delivering great customer service, and if they at some point might struggle I need to be there to help them out and get them back on top of their game. And I would think my supervisor would do the same for me.


MOSES – Ramping up Government Use of Virtual Worlds

We've been fortunate to have a group of federal employees from the US who are dedicated and passionate about government use of virtual worlds. The work accomplished by Eric Hackathorn (NOAA), William May and Lovisa Williams (State Dept), Charles White and Jeanne Holm (NASA), Paulette Robinson (NDU), and Douglas Maxwell and Tami Griffith (US Army) has been groundbreaking and inspirational. (And there are many more who I apologize for not listing.) Recently Maxwell launched a new project named MOSES. And based on what I've seen, this project has the potential to not only build upon these past accomplishments but also ramp up government use of virtual worlds and move us in new directions we have yet to discover.

At first, I thought MOSES was going to be a grid set up only for use by the military but with public access. Then last week, a post on the project site led me to believe MOSES was offering space on their grid to outside agencies/companies. The post talked about a map showing other groups establishing builds on the MOSES grid. While looking at the "Join MOSES" link on the project site, I found that yes, indeed, MOSES seemed to be offering space to other groups!

MuniGov on MOSES

"MOSES is an Open Simulator based project designed for use by the military and our industry/academic collaborators. MOSES is currently an exploratory project designed to test multiple deployment methods of Open Simulator, archival methods for content, and experimental application case studies. Region owners retain full simulator rights, to include terraforming, OAR/IAR upload and download, and region restart access."

To me, this seemed too good to be true! Our MuniGov group had started a grid – GovGrid – in February 2010 to start taking advantage of the benefits of OpenSim and provide space for others in government to explore the technology. But encouraging others to move onto the grid has been a challenge – the technology is still very new to most in government, and unfortunately because we host through a private provider, we have to charge for land. Also, although our group is managed by people working in government, it is not "owned" by a government agency. All of these factors can make it much more difficult to encourage participation by a local government. MOSES addresses most of these issues.

So I took a chance and asked Maxwell if our group could establish a presence on MOSES. He graciously offered a whole sim for MuniGov to set up a local government presence. We are temporarily located on the STTC_7_4 sim of MOSES and will now work on developing the site. MOSES is still considered an experimental effort, but because the grid allows users to back up their work, everything we do can be saved for use on any OpenSim grid. For now, we will retain GovGrid to allow for development of OAR files and other resources that can be shared in the OpenSim community.

It's exciting that Maxwell has allowed our group to be part of this effort. Because of it, local government now has the opportunity to be part of the networking and collaboration provided by the US Army's decision to allow non-military use of the grid. And we have the chance to be part of an incubator-type project destined to advance government use of virtual worlds. I would encourage anyone interested in government use of 3D immersive technology to sign up for an account on the MOSES site and become part of the MOSES experiment!

(You can read about more examples of government use of virtual worlds, including information about MiLands, at our sister site, Grid Works)