News : State Human Services Department Touts Better Customer Service
Pittsburg, PA, USA, March 14, 2016 -- Advocacy groups and the clients they serve have long complained about poor customer service from the state Department of Human Services. It seems their voices have been heard.
DHS is touting improvements in customer service — more calls getting answered more quickly and other new initiatives in the works like streamlined paperwork and a mobile app to serve people more quickly. Advocates have complained for years about problems as basic as getting their phone calls answered.
"Our sense is that the customer service has improved," said Ken Regal, executive director of advocacy group Just Harvest, which assists people in applying for food stamps. Mr. Regal said his agency is hearing fewer complaints from clients and has had an easier time calling the department’s statewide number.
Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said the agency’s average percentage of calls answered to the statewide number has climbed to 93.2 percent, up from 44.6 percent in January 2015. Average call wait time has fallen to 51 seconds, down from more than 10 minutes last January, he said. A test call by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday was answered after 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
"We’re very happy that we have been able to make these improvements. We’re by no means satisfied with where we are," Mr. Dallas said.
In Philadelphia, which has a separate call center from the rest of the state, "it is light-years better than it was a couple years ago" in terms of getting calls answered, said Kristin Dama, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services, which assists with benefit issues.
At times, callers would not even be able to get into a queue to get their call answered, only being told there was high call volume and to call back later.
"It has been a really dramatic sea change," she said.
The department has redistributed staffing resources, provided training and retraining regarding handling phone calls, and changed performance and productivity monitoring to track progress, said Kait Gillis, a DHS spokeswoman.
Advocacy groups have complained for years that the agency has had serious problems with basic customer service.
A 2013 study issued by Just Harvest concluded that "the department is failing to provide consumers with basic service at a level that is necessary for obtaining and maintaining benefits."
It found in 2013 when clients called a statewide number to report changes in address or income, 40 percent of survey participants reported hold times of an hour or longer, 66 percent had experienced high call volume disconnections, and 28 percent reported disconnections happened more often than not.
"The nature of these problems are not unique to an individual caseworker or office, nor are they phenomena related to unusual moments of peak call volume or crisis circumstances," the report concluded. "They are widespread and systemic. The persistent inability of the [County Assistance Office] system to manage its workload — whether it be answering the phone, processing documents or returning voice mail messages — indicates that the department is understaffed and/?or lacks the basic resources necessary to enable community members to access vital public benefits."
The department is also undertaking several initiatives to serve clients more efficiently.
Mr. Dallas said the department is also working on developing a mobile app to give clients the ability to upload documents, get updates on the status of an application or benefits, and send reminders when people need to reapply. The department is modeling the app on one that is used in Texas.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, March 17, 2016