One California lawmaker has a radical solution, The Sacramento Bee reports.
Assemblyman Mike Davis is proposing to take a giant step backward, to a time when phone calls were answered by a live "hello" -- not by a recorded request to "press one for English." Davis' Assembly Bill 865 would require every state agency to have an employee answer calls to its customer service line during normal business hours.
"This is, in my opinion, a very basic need of constituents," said Davis, D-Los Angeles. "Our work really is centered around serving people."
Critics say automation saves so much money, compared to human receptionists, that the proposal is actually harmful.
Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, said the Legislature should give agencies flexibility in such matters. Taxpayers might be willing to live with a little inconvenience, if necessary, to keep labor costs down, Benoit said.
"Most of the time, it would be nice if it were a real person," he said. "But we shouldn't micromanage them and say this is the best way in all circumstances."
A story like this is tailor-made for a reporter to spend a few days on the phone doing his own little survey. The Bee's reporter found:
Eight of (California's 24) agencies use a live operator. Fourteen agencies use a prerecorded message -- some lasting a minute or two -- that ends with instructions for reaching a staff member. Two agencies do not provide the option of talking to a person.
A call to the state Health Services Department to seek information about vital statistics prompted a two-minute prerecorded message in both Spanish and English, followed by an additional wait of 6 1/2 minutes before reaching an operator.
The Department of Motor Vehicles, one of the state's most active agencies, receives about 72,000 calls per day to its automated information line. Of those, 40,000 eventually talk to a person, 26,000 are served by the prerecorded system, and 6,000 hang up along the way, spokesman Mike Miller said.
The bill would require all public calls during normal business hours to be answered by a person, within 10 rings. Davis said he would consider amendments to make his bill acceptable if he can't pass it in its current form, such as allowing automated systems that always provide an easy way to get to a person.
But one Republican raised a Constitutional objection - legislative meddling in executive branch operations.
Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks, said lawmakers have no business telling others how to answer a phone. "Running the bureaucracy of government is the responsibility of the executive branch, and unless they show incompetence or corruption, I'm happy to allow them to do that as they see fit," Niello said.