Mobile Queuing Saves Citizens Time and Cities Money

Columnist Dr. Alex Bäcker discusses increasing citizen satisfaction in government services through multilingual technologies and mobile queuing.

We’ve all heard the complaints: government agencies are slow, inefficient and don’t meet the needs of the people that pay the bills. Discontent with government is a common rallying point for politicians, but when you really pull back the curtain, programs like Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance are greatly appreciated by the people who rely on them. Even the politicians who claim that Americans “hate” government admit that many programs are so popular that they’re impossible to repeal.

The reality is that Americans are not, in fact, anti-government. What they are is anti-waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV. They are anti-inconvenience or anti-wasting-time-when-I-could-be-doing-something-more-important. And for people who don’t speak English fluently, there are few things less convenient and more frustrating than being unable to get help at a government agency because no one at the local government office can provide service.

The Yelp Effect

The digital age has provided low-cost and effective methods to measure customer satisfaction: online review sites. Yelp and Google Reviews (and myriad others) let anyone share their opinions…and unfortunately, many government agencies don’t receive high rankings. One of the most common complaints for visitors to local, state and federal offices is the long line or wait for service. Everyone has horror stories about going into the department of motor vehicles (DMV) early in the morning and spending an entire workday waiting to do 15 minutes of business. There are thousands of one- and two-star ratings of DMV offices around the country with reviews like this one on Yelp: “The line for the number station is always out of the door. Now I'm ready to spend the rest of my day here. I hate the DMV.”

Mobile queuing like this interface from QLess can help cities improve citizen satisfaction at the DMV and other city agencies.
Image: QLess

Technology is helping organizations around the world – from government agencies to colleges to retail stores– to actually eliminate physical lines. With mobile queuing, people can join a virtual, mobile line and arrive after they receive a text message alerting them that their turn for service is approaching. Many state transportation, county tax and city permit offices have implemented mobile queuing, and the results have been measurably positive. Here are some examples:

  • A Florida county tax collector’s office lowered citizen wait times by 35 percent, then received an 82 percent satisfaction rating.
  • The Tennessee Department of Safety lowered on-site wait times by 97 percent.
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety mobile queuing adoption rates is about 94 percent which customer satisfaction increased by 113 percent.
  • The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission offices cut its no-show rates by 39 percent while on-site customer delays were reduced by 43 percent.

One reason that mobile queuing is so well-received is that it works in any language.

Why Multilingual Services Matter

Eliminating long lines is key to eliminating a huge source of complaints, dissatisfaction and poor reviews. But that doesn’t really take care of the needs of non-English speakers, many of whom have to wait even longer than everyone else to get the services they need. People who cannot communicate in English and who cannot depend on receiving service in their native language feel more than just inconvenienced: they feel marginalized, excluded and even humiliated. Just as with eliminating long lines, technology such as mobile queuing can eliminate the pain-point of language barriers to deliver more efficient government services faster to more citizens.

One in 10 Americans cannot speak fluent English. If a lack of multilingual services is a barrier for 10 percent of the population, providing support in languages other than English could create a significant increase in satisfaction in places like Los Angeles, Calif., (37 percent Spanish speaking), Miami, Fla., (40 percent Spanish speaking) and Houston, Texas, (29 percent Spanish speaking). For government offices in cities with large numbers of non-English speakers, offering services in multiple languages could mean the difference between either helping or marginalizing a huge chunk of the population.

Taking a Cue from the Private Sector

Many politicians who promote government inefficiency look to the private sector as a model. The private sector is often effective at reacting to market forces where government agencies have less flexibility. If business owners realize they can produce more revenue by offering multilingual support for non-English speakers, then it’s likely that they’ll invest.

A relevant example is the banking industry. Only a few years ago most ATMs only offered services in English and occasionally Spanish. Today, many U.S. cash machines offer a choice of six or more languages, eliminating that particular pain point from the lives of every bank customer who isn’t fluent in English.

It didn’t take banks very long to increase satisfaction among their non-English-speaking customers, and governments can also take advantage of technology to help meet the needs of non-Anglophones.

Technology is the Great Equalizer

The language of review stars is a language that anyone can understand and speak. Government services come under public pressure due to poor citizen interactions that triggers negative online reviews.

Technology like mobile queuing is available to remove language barriers and level the playing field to provide service for all Americans. Multi-language support is no longer a luxury: it’s a necessity. Moreover, one universal constant is people value their limited time, and mobile queuing allows government offices to show their customers they value it, too.

Alex Bäcker is founder and CEO of QLess and serves on the California Institute of Technology Information Sciences and Technology Board of Advisors. He holds a degree in Biology and Economics from MIT and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems and Biology from Caltech. Prior to starting QLess, Dr. Bäcker held positions at McKinsey & Co., the Center for Computation, Computers, Information and Mathematics of Sandia National Labs and Caltech. His research on neural coding and artificial intelligence has been published in the world’s leading publications such as Nature and Neural Computation.

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