Fixing the phone listings is one of the most important customer
service improvements we have taken in reinventing government...
Vice President Al Gore
November 15, 1996
In parallel to the NPR initiative, the objective of the X.500 standard is to provide for a worldwide, interoperable electronic directory based on many widely distributed computers. Not only will the X.500 directory facilitate online telephony and computer-to-computer communications, but it should also serve as the original source of information for the printed directories.
However, it is questionable whether preparation of camera-ready copy is either a core competency or a business in which GSA should be involved.(6) Whether agencies should be forced to pay anything for their listings is also debatable. Payments to "advertise" Federal telephone numbers might be considered to be needless taxpayer-funded subsidies to selected directory publishers who are in a position to exercise monopolist influence.(7) GSA could refuse to supply Federal listings to companies that fail to share them. Alternately, GSA might take it upon itself to identify and make the listings available to all potential publishers of competitive directories in all localities. Otherwise, their strategy to focus on printed output might be interpreted as aiding and abetting monopolistic profiteering, at the expense of the taxpayers.
Of course, too, there is the question of whether any directory publisher can afford to exclude Federal agency listings, regardless of whether they are paid for them or not. If GSA were to focus instead upon assisting Federal agencies to make their listings available in distributed on-line directories - as envisioned by the X.500 standard - any and all directory publishers could select and add value (e.g., printing) to any subset of the data they choose.(8) Such a strategy would seem to be far more appropriate for GSA in terms of nondiscriminatory value-additive service to their stockholders, the American taxpaying public. Of course, too, the true test of whether GSA's camera-ready service is justified would be whether the directory publishers are willing to pay the full cost, including the cost of gathering the data in a centralized database.
Nevertheless, under the procedures specified by GSA, each Cabinet-level department and agency has been required to designate a coordinator to deliver the information to GSA, and they in turn have formed teams of bureau coordinators who are responsible for gathering the listings from their offices. From an organizational process standpoint, the result is a classic hierarchical structure with information being transmitted across at least four levels through a single funnel choke-point at GSA. The administrative and logistical costs of such an arrangement are considerable. However, they have not been considered - at least not in terms of benefit/cost analyses. As is so often the case with government action, the assumption has been that the ends justify the means.(9)
For agencies with hundreds or thousands of offices distributed nationwide, the data collection process is a large and complex. Although most, if not all agencies have existing databases in which their offices and telephone numbers are identified, they may not be well suited for application to the Blue Pages. In all likelihood such databases reflect the bureaucratic structure of the organization rather the function(s) that it serves in terms commonly understood by the public. Generally speaking, agency databases have been developed for various "stovepipe" purposes. Although many of them contain much of the data required for the Blue Pages, they may not be comprehensive. Because they are not well integrated, many of them contain redundant information, and redundancy requires added resources. Since many databases are focused narrowly rather than on enterprisewide mission-critical business purposes, resources to maintain them are inadequate and they may not be reliable or up-to-date. Even to the extent that they may contain good and usable data, existing agency databases may not be available to the Blue Pages coordinators.(10)
In the tasks identified for agency implementors, GSA has suggested that the primary "databases" with which to begin are the existing listings in the telephone directories. However, that requires agency coordinators to acquire copies of the existing listings for all of their offices in all of the printed directories nationwide. It also ignores the fact that the existing listings have been determined to be inadequate. The existing listings have been defined as the problem. The whole purpose of the initiative is to reengineer them, not to "review" them.(11) Not only would acquiring copies of all listings for all agencies in all directories nationwide be an extraordinarily cumbersome task, more importantly, it adds little or no value to the process.
Indeed, the fact that the existing process is largely based upon paper is the single greatest impediment to an efficient and successful outcome. Just because the end product - listings in local telephone directories - is paper-based does not mean that paper should be a part of the value chain leading to the final output.(12) Yet the process that GSA has specified requires the Cabinet-level department/agency coordinators to deliver their listings to GSA on paper, at which point GSA re-keys them into its database. Prior to reaching GSA the listings may have already been typed two or three times - originally at the office whose phone number(s) is/are in question, secondly at the regional or national bureau level, and thirdly at the bureau and/or departmental level. In some cases GSA turns the listings over to the directory publishers in camera-ready copy. However, in others the publishers end up re-keying the listings yet again. The process is rife with opportunities not only for typographical errors but also changes of context leading to semantic confusion.(13) Moreover, such errors occur at stages of the process that add little or no value.
The first implementation task identified by GSA references agency "templates". The third task suggests that the templates should be designed to identify public products and services in terms commonly used and readily understood by the public. The preparation of such templates is a real value-added task that can and should be performed on a centralized, top-down basis within each agency. However, beyond that, the value to be added by headquarters operations is questionable.
The value upon which GSA has focused is the cost of individual listings provided directly to the telephone directory companies by the offices performing the functions.(14) By centralizing the data collection process, GSA intends to:
2. provide value to the directory publishers by delivering camera-ready copy to them.
To the extent that agencies already have centralized databases containing the necessary information for their own business purposes, it certainly makes sense to re-use such data for the Blue Pages. Moreover, if the Blue Pages initiative causes agencies to see the merit of maintaining centralized databases on the functions performed by their offices, that too is likely to be a worthy value-additive function. However, the current paper-driven process directed by GSA is unlikely to lead to that outcome unless it is refocused.
Beyond the process leadership problem, there is an even more basic flaw in GSA's approach. Mills (1997) reports that one of the biggest complaints against directory services is that operators often cannot find a number unless the caller knows the exact town in which it is located. By focusing on printed output, GSA's strategy completely overlooks this primary problem - notwithstanding the fact that it is readily resolvable through the combination of functional listings and geographic information (GIS) technology in an on-line directory.
Federal agencies are precluded from copyrighting public information, but if GSA is going to be in the camera-ready publishing business, it seems that at least it should advertise such service in the Commerce Business Daily (CBD) and/or the Federal Register. Proposals or even bids should be solicited on an equal basis from all potential customers for such services. Some vendors might even be willing to pay for the privilege of publishing Federal listings, particularly if a semi-exclusive right is conferred, as presently seems to be the case.
In any event, there is no evidence that GSA has any implicit cost advantage in delivering print publication services. Any advantage that it does have is based upon a monopolistic position and the assumption that agencies can be forced or expected to participate in a cumbersome data collection and maintenance process - in which their labor is also assumed to be "free" (i.e., of no value).
And it is not just GPO and private sector print publishers with whom GSA is competing. In effect, GSA is also competing through a stovepipe Blue Pages system with other stovepipe systems in which similar or identical data is maintained within the agencies themselves. It is unclear whether agency leaders, GAO, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Congress or anyone else in a position to exercise effective oversight will recognize and try to put a stop to the inefficiencies and needless duplication of data and effort. However, that is a risk that GSA faces through its current strategy. Indeed, the Information Technology Management Reform Act (Clinger-Cohen Act) explicitly requires OMB to establish a planning process to minimize such duplicative systems.
It would be highly ironic and unfortunate if GSA's misplaced focus were to lead to a political "arms war" through which the agency's resources might actually be reduced instead of productively employed toward improvements in the Blue Pages data collection process. Due to the political support for the project - particularly that of the Vice President - that seems an unlikely outcome. However, in a politically charged environment, inefficiency compounded by any hint of impropriety could in fact lead to circumstances in which budgetary savings might be claimed as bounty.(22) Certainly, if there is one thing that all political factions agree, it is that government services should be delivered as efficiently as possible. Indeed, the Vice President's own mantra is "a Government that works better and costs less."
Instead of requiring coordinators in each and every agency to redundantly determine the directory service areas, GSA should provide guidance and direction for coordinators to identify in geographic information system (GIS) terms the areas served by their own offices - all at once. There should be no need to contact any office more than once to identify all of their functions, public telephone numbers, and geographic service areas. Thereafter, each office should be expected to keep its own listings up-to-date in the on-line X.500 directory. Automated forms should be used to gather the data, using whatever open-systems E-forms software and procedures are best suited to the task in each agency. However, GSA should provide overall guidance and direction. In particular, GSA should either develop a single "intelligent" Blue Pages form that can be rendered in all major E-forms software products used by all Federal agencies, or GSA should provide assistance to each Department and agency in rendering an intelligent form tailored to its own requirements.
At a minimum such form(s) should provide lookup/validation tables for: a) agency functions; b) area codes and local exchanges; and c) directory names, service areas, and publishing deadlines. If the directories charge for listings, the prices should also be identified in a lookup table. The costs should automatically be calculated, and the form should provide for authentication and digital signature by a person authorized to incur the expense of the obligation. Ideally, the form should also interface with the agencies' procurement, finance, and budgeting systems.
In any event, the publishers should be expected to identify in GIS terms the service areas for their own directories. Once the agencies have identified their office/functional service areas in GIS terms, the directory publishers should be able to generate the appropriate subsets of the data for publication. Alternately, the publishers could provide the necessary GIS data to GSA and, for an appropriate fee (on a cost-recovery basis), GSA could automatically generate their listings for them - by joining the directory geographic service area data with the agencies' geographic service area data.
Taking a broader view of the Blue Pages value chain, a simple truism is that telephones are required to make calls, but printed directories are not. As compared to on-line directories, there are obvious and intractable problems with printed directories, not the least of which is that they are either bulky or incomplete. Trade-offs are required with respect to indexing and cross-referencing.(27) Moreover, printed directories are out-of-date literally before the ink is dry. Distribution costs are significant. Storing and recycling bulky directories are hassles for consumers. For the physically challenged, using metropolitan area directories can be a physical challenge as well - due to their bulk and weight, difficulty in finding and turning to the appropriate pages, lack of table space near the phone, etc. For the elderly and not so old, the difficulty in reading small type is also a significant impediment. For the blind, printed directories are useless unless converted to braille.(28)
Technology may provide a solution obviating the need for printed directories. For example, Unisys offers a Natural Language Assistant that reportedly can discriminate up to 400 different items per index level. (Barchard) While such technology may be in the proof-of-concept phase, the potential benefits would appear to warrant GSA's serious consideration. Indeed, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) requires agencies to make reasonable efforts to accommodate all formats in which public information may be requested by the public. If and when consumers become aware that there may be an alternative that eliminates the need for bulky printed directories and requires no more than a phone, it seems likely they will request that Federal agency telephone numbers be made available by such means.
Taking a still broader view, in many cases telephone calls are merely an inefficient means for consumers to locate and obtain information that has already been documented. In such instances, the proper course of action would be to deliver the information directly to the consumer and eliminate the need for telephone conversations with intermediaries who add no value. (See Ambur, X.500 Green Pages.)
As pointed out by Thompson and Strickland (p. 105), an organization's own value chain should be examined and compared to rivals' to determine cost advantages/disadvantages and which segments are responsible. There are three primary components to any organization's overall value chain: suppliers, the organization's own activity segments, and the forward channels. Of the three, GSA seems to have focused disproportionately on meeting the needs of the forward-channel intermediaries, i.e., the print publishers of the directories. Little apparent attention has been paid to the suppliers' segments of the value chain, and consideration of the needs of the consumers has failed to address the scope of vision that might be desired.(35)
To correct these deficiencies, GSA would do well to reorient its strategy to focus on process improvements throughout the Blue Pages value chain.(36) Specifically, GSA should exert strong and effective leadership:
Second, to use E-forms technology to gather and maintain new or additional data that may be needed, including appropriate authorization of the obligation of funding for listings.(37)
Third, to ask both the agencies and the directory publishers to identify their service areas in GIS terms.
Fourth, to provide on-line access to the directory, both via telephones as well as computers. The use of 411 and 800 services, as well as natural language interfaces, should be fully explored to supplement if not completely replace printed directories.
It may be awhile before the average American anywhere in the United States can pick up the phone, dial 1-800-SAY-THE-WORD, speak in plain English exactly what is on their mind, and automatically receive the appropriate information or, if necessary, be connected to the appropriate office to speak with a Federal employee. However, that is the vision for which the Blue Pages should aim. To aim lower would be to fail to realize sooner through effective leadership what will eventually become reality for the American taxpaying public.(38)
Those who fail to shape reality will be shaped by it. GSA has an historic opportunity to lead the charge to streamline the Blue Pages value chain while at the same time adding value to the output. It is a mission to which they should rededicate themselves through enhanced commitment to process improvement. A truly comprehensive and universally accessible Blue Pages directory is an outcome within our grasp. It is an outcome to which all of Uncle Sam's stockholder/customers are entitled.
Ambur, O. (1997, May). Automated Forms: Putting the Customer First through Intelligent, Object-Oriented Chunking of Information and Technology. Available at: http://www.erols.com/ambur/E-forms.html
Ambur, O. (1997). X.500 Green Pages. Background information. Available at: http://www.fws.gov/laws/greenpgs.html
Ambur, O. (1997). Selected provisions of Title 44 of the U.S. Code of Statutes pertaining to public printing and documents. Available at: http://www.fws.gov/laws/title44.html
Barchard, Richard. (1997, October 14). Telephone conversation regarding Unisys' Natural Language Assistant. Additional information available at: http://www.marketplace.unisys.com/nlu/homenla.html
Camp, R.C. (1995) Learning from the Best Leads to Superior Performance. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer. p. 521.
Cooper, A.C., and Smith, C.G. (1992). How Established Firms Respond to Threatening Technologies. In Thompson, Strickland, and Robertson. p. 198.
Cornell University. (1997). Full text of Title 44 of the U.S. Code of Statutes, Public Printing and Documents. Available at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/44
Egelhoff, W.G. (1993). Great Strategy or Great Strategy Implementation - Two Ways of Competing in Global Markets. In Thompson, Strickland, and Robertson. (pp. 429-453).
Finley, Jack. (1997, August 26). Personal remarks during a meeting at Booz, Allen, and Hamilton offices in McLean, Virginia.
GSA. (Date unknown). Report on Governmentwide Electronic Directory. Available at: http://www.fed.gov/arch/arch.htm
GSA (1996, November). Federal Blue Pages Project Employees Receive Vice President's Hammer Award. Press release. Available at: http://w3.gsa.gov/web/x/bnews.nsf/News+Releases+Web/369EDFA6D304A0DA852563E30070EFE2?OpenDocument
GSA. (1997, April). Governmentwide Electronic Messaging, Directory and Registration Services. PowerPoint slide show entitled "BlueAtlanta.ppt" by the General Services Administration, Federal Telecommunications Service, Office of Service Delivery, Center for Electronic Messaging Technologies.
GSA (1997, November). The Government Electronic Pages: Online Directory Listings. Information on the Blue, White, Yellow, Green, and Grey Pages. Available at: http://www.fed.gov/listings/i-list.html
Hamel, G., and Prahalad, C.K. (1989). Stragic Intent. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer.
Linneman, R.E., and Stanton, J.L. (1992). Mining for Niches. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer. p. 292
Mills, M. (1997, September 21). Long-Distance Information: Don't Count on It. The Washington Post. pp. A1 and A22.
M.U.S.E. Report: A Unified Federal Government Electronic Mail Users' Support Environment. (1993). Available at: ftp://ftp.fed.gov/emailpmo/muse
NPR. (1997, November). National Performance Review homepage. Available at: http://www.npr.gov/
Pejman, P. (1997, November 24). Congress threatens a strategic plan redo: Poor grades and infrequency lead lawmakers to seek legislation forcing agencies to shape up planning. Government Computer News. p. 54.
Raynor, M.E. (1992) Quality as a Strategic Weapon. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer. p. 226.
Schoemaker, P.J.H. (1992) How to Link Strategic Vision to Core Capabilities. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer. p. 160.
Stalk, G., Evans, P., and Schluman, L.E. (1992) Competing on Capabilities: The New Rules of Corporate Strategy. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer.
Stewart, T.A. (1993). Reengineering: The Hot New Management Tool. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer. p. 515.
Thompson, A.A., Jr., Strickland, A.J., III, and Robertson Kramer, T. (1995). Readings in Strategic Management. (5th ed.). Chicago, IL: Irwin.
Thompson, A.A., Jr., and Strickland, A.J., III. (1995). Strategic Management: Concepts and Cases. (8th ed.). Chicago, IL: Irwin.
Weiss, P. (1997, June 11). Discussion of the provisions of Executive Order 13011, Federal Information Technology, as reported in minutes of IT legislation implementation workshop. Available at: http://www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/mks/regs-leg/wkshop/wksp.htm
Zahra, S.A., and Chaples, S.S. (1993). Blind Spots in Competitive Analysis. In Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer.
2. The shift to service-oriented listings reflects a reengineering approach rather than Total Quality Management (TQM), which is characterized continuous improvement. Thompson and Strickland (p. 277) say, "The essential difference between reengineering and TQM is that reengineering aims at quantum gains on the order of 30 to 50 percent or more whereas total quality programs stress incremental progress... [however] the two are... not mutually exclusive."
While there is little doubt that the average user of the Blue Pages will benefit greatly from the new approach, neither is there any question that continuous improvement in the listings will be beneficial. Moreover, the process by which the listings themselves are gathered and maintained is in need not just of continuous improvement but also reengineering.
Also, the shift is not without tradeoffs, for example, for those who do wish to contact a particular office by name, rather than by the functions that it performs. However, this tradeoff is an artifact of the vehicle which is the focus of the Blue Pages initiative - the printed telephone directories. In electronic renditions, searches can readily be accommodated by both means.
3. Besides the Blue Pages, the X.500 directory comprises: White Pages for information about people, Yellow Pages for services, and Green Pages for documents. (See end note 1 in Ambur, 1997, February.)
4. A frequently cited example is the passport issuing function. Those who wish to call the appropriate office for information on how to obtain a new or reissued passport would look under "p" for "passports" - rather than "s" for "State Department" or "d" for the more proper name "Department of State".
Within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services offices are a cogent example. "Ecological services" can mean many things to different people. Indeed, even within the agency itself, the functions performed by each office may be unclear. The nomenclature was changed from "Fish and Wildlife Enhancement" without changing the underlying responsibilities. The functions actually performed by those offices, of which there are more than 70 covering all areas of the U.S., include: endangered species protection, habitat conservation, and wetlands permit reviews. Some offices (such as the Annapolis, Maryland, office) also perform functions for which other, more specialized terms are meaningful (e.g., Chesapeake Bay restoration). Thus, it is not just the public, but also agency employees themselves who may benefit from a more functionally oriented means of identifying the appropriate contacts.
5. In cities where there are Federal Executive Boards (FEBs), they have been involved but their role relative to that of the agency coordinators has been unclear. In some cases, the FEBs have either taken it upon themselves or been asked to coordinate the gathering of the listings. However, they must rely upon contacts in each agency for the necessary information. While the intent is admirable - to distribute the workload to those closest to the problem - the implementation has left much to be desired because: a) the listings still must be transmitted through the departmental/agency coordinators to GSA in Washington; b) the FEB in any particular city may not represent all agencies and functions that should be listed in the local telephone directory; and c) it is confusing to have two different channels of communication leading from a common starting point to a common end point.
Actually, the lines of communication are more complex than that. In transmitting listings to GSA, the FEB in any particular city might be expected to communicate with every agency with respect to the transmission of each agency's listings for the city. Thus, for each city's listings there are literally hundreds of communications channels back to GSA, and there are dozens of cities where FEBs might be involved. Rather than asking the FEBs to play a role that is redundant to that of the agency coordinators in gathering and transmitting the listings to GSA, it may be more appropriate simply to have the FEBs review the proposed listings for consistency, comprehensiveness, and contextual clarity just prior to publication.
6. Under Title 44 of the U.S. Code, the Government Printing Office (GPO) is designated as responsible and given authority for Federal publications. (See Ambur, Title 44 summary. For the full text of Title 44, see Cornell.)
That chapter of the Code (sections 3701-3703) also specifies certain requirements with respect to "advertising" by Federal agencies. While those provisions may be interpreted as being inapplicable to the Blue Pages per se, it is difficult to argue that the following limitation would not be good policy for general application to all such activities: "Advertisements ... may be paid for at a price not to exceed the commercial rates charged to private individuals..."
Paradoxically, private individuals are required to pay not to advertise their telephone numbers in the local telephone company directories. In effect, private numbers are "advertised" for free, whether citizens want them to be or not. On the other hand, telephone numbers for public offices and functions are not made available to the public unless somebody explicitly takes action to make them so - for which they may or may not be asked to pay an advertising fee. (Thus far, GSA has been unable to tell the Blue Pages coordinators whether or how much their Departments and agencies may be asked to pay.)
It is difficult to see how such a Alice-in-Wonderland policy can be justified on the basis of any public interest. The only apparent justification seems to be to maximize the profitability of the directories.
7. Mills (1997) reported that local telephone companies are refusing to share updated listings of their customers' phone numbers. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, they are required to make such listings available to other companies. However, the Act does not specify a price much less that access be provided free of charge. In the new competitive regime for telecommunications, local and long distance carriers are potential competitors, and local carriers view their listings as a proprietary resource from which they have a right to profit.
8. Some of the directory publishers are offering a so-called "Dream Pages" format, featuring color, Internet addresses, and graphics (e.g., agency logos), presumably at a premium price.
9. Under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), agencies are required to establish goals and objectives and to measure performance outputs and outcomes. Just because an activity has been conducted in the past is not to be taken as any indication that it will be funded in the future. In that context, it should not be assumed that agencies should be expected to continue to pay to "advertise" their numbers in the Blue Pages without reference to the desired outcome and consideration of alternatives means of achieving it.
10. For example, the National Park Service (NPS) representatives on the Department of the Interior Blue Pages Team have had difficulty obtaining and supplying the necessary data on a timely basis. However, the author was able to obtain from a colleague within his own agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a 153-page printout containing all of the necessary data required to generate the Blue Pages listings automatically for all of the National Parks and Monuments nationwide. Unfortunately, the printout was produced in 1993 and is outdated. Worse yet, its origin is unknown so the database from which it was derived is effectively unavailable for reuse for the purposes of the Blue Pages. This is just one of many examples of the problem with the development and use of stovepipe database-oriented applications.
11. Thompson and Strickland (p. 268) highlight the following steps to successfully reengineer process fragmentation and reduce overhead:
GSA's assumption seems to be that the production of camera-ready copy as the critical strategic output. While that is a highly dubious assumption, assuming it were true, GSA should benchmark its capabilities in that regard with those of the Government Printing Office (GPO) and private-sector print publishers. It would seem that a much higher-value, more strategically critical activity for GSA would be to exercise leadership in improving the process by which the data itself is gathered, validated, updated, and maintained - rather than merely how it is presented to those who reproduce it on paper.
12. Representatives Eshoo (D-CA) and Baker (R-LA) have each introduced legislation to require agencies to render their forms in electronic format and to use digital signatures to eliminate paper from the process. Similar, though less specific, legislation offered by Rep. Talent (R-MO) has already passed the House unanimously, 395 to 0. However, few if any agencies have developed plans to accommodate the shift and, thus far, GSA has shown little leadership toward that end.
13. For example, in a "consolidated list of products and services" compiled by GSA, dated May 5, 1997, the land acquisition function performed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was listed under a subheading for the Bureau of Land Management. That compilation also included redundant subheadings for "Permits & Licenses". Under one of those identical subheadings, a Fish and Wildlife Service listing for "import/export" permits omitted the "fish & wildlife" modifier. Thus, if that listing were used, those wishing to export, say, computer equipment controlled under national security laws might have been inappropriately directed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
14. A cynical view might suggest that the critical value upon which GSA has focused is that of making itself an indispensable part of the process. That may be within GSA's power in light of its monopoly for Governmentwide negotiations with the telephone companies for voice and data communications services. However, GSA involvement in and of itself is no good purpose unless it cost-efficiently adds value to the process.
A more charitable interpretation might be that GSA merely suffers from an error in judgment that often plagues managers: inflexible commitment to historical key success factors (KSFs). For printed telephone directories, in the past such factors have included fast and accurate re-keying of text and numbers, transmittal and management of voluminous paperwork, and the production of attractive camera-ready copy. (Zahra and Chaples discuss this strategic flaw at page 113 in Thompson, Strickland, and Kramer.) Linneman and Stanton (1992) point out that "one of the most difficult tasks ... is taking a fresh look at a mature market" but successful organizations are constantly looking for new solutions to old problems. Raynor (1992) says such organizations "become driven by a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a productive restlessness sets in." He characterizes it as an "air of positive discontent."
15. In discussing strategic fit benefits of merged activities, Thompson and Strickland (p. 198) point out that "management must determine that the benefit of some centralized strategic control is great enough to warrant sacrifice of business-unit autonomy." (The emphasis on a limited amount of centralized control theirs.)
That test is clearly met as far as the development of agency Blue Pages listing templates is concerned. There is no reason that each office within an agency should be required to figure out for itself the best terms to use in describing to the public the functions that are common to all or many of their agency's offices. Moreover, a template is just that - a guide, not a mandate. It provides for some centralized control while at the same time providing flexibility. If the agency template does not contain the necessary descriptive terms for the functions performed by any office, there should be nothing to prevent the office from adding the appropriate terms for use in their local listings.
On the other hand, it is highly questionable whether centralized collection and processing of the data and transmission of listings to the directory publishers is warranted - particularly through a paper-driven process. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the directory publishers to have only one point of contact for all listings. However, whether it is in the interest of taxpayers, directory users, and the agencies themselves seems doubtful. If the process is conducted as a paper-driven stovepipe that does not relate other databases within the agencies that require and contain much of the same data, it is almost certainly needlessly wasteful.
There may also be a legal or ethical question as to whether GSA is unfairly conferring special benefits to selected directory publishers through an ad hoc barter process that trades the labor of Federal employees and camera-ready copy for free listings in the directories. If such a deal is to be struck, it seems that it should be offered on an equal basis to all potential vendors through announcement in the Commerce Business Daily. Indeed, rather than charging for Federal listings, some vendors might be willing to pay for the privilege of receiving such service, particularly if it is effectively exclusive, as seems to be the case under current procedures. Only a true and open test of the market will tell what constitutes a fair exchange of value.
16. For information on benchmarking see Thompson and Strickland, pp. 101-105.
17. The Blue Pages project was initiated during the buildup to the 1996 elections. It fits neatly into Vice President Gore's reinvention of government initiative and provided a ready opportunity for him to tout the Administration's efforts in key cities during the reelection campaign. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the concept of making Government more user-friendly and responsive. Indeed, that is exactly what political leaders should be doing. However, the pressure to produce improved listings that could be published quickly in cities targeted for political advantage has had the effect of forestalling long-term strategic planning, together with the development of procedures and systems to accomplish the task effectively on an efficient and sustainable basis.
While their focus was more narrow - on politics within an organization rather than on national election politics - Thompson and Strickland made the following observations with regard to "low- performance or unhealthy cultures" that are applicable to the Blue Pages project:
2) group members who are receptive to risk-taking, experimentation, innovation, and changing strategies and practices whenever necessary to satisfy the legitimate interests of stakeholders. (p. 296)
19. In this sense, GSA is demonstrating the U.S. penchant to compete upon the basis of strategic changes versus the Japanese preference to build advantage based upon operational improvements. The strategic shift to list Federal telephone numbers according to commonly understood functional terms is clearly advantageous, but it is not a basis for long-term benefit either to GSA or to any other agency in terms of value that they can add. Once the shift has been accomplished the only basis for ongoing advantage is operational efficiency in gathering and maintaining the data.
Competing on strategy is effective in the early stages of the life cycle of a product or service. However, as the market matures, process advantages become the only viable option for low- and best-cost suppliers. (Few would argue that the taxpayer funded Federal agencies should be in the business of providing highly differentiated products and services to relatively small segments of the market. Even if the market will bear the cost, the political consensus is that Government agencies should not compete with private businesses to supply highly differentiated products and services.)
Of course, from a strategic standpoint, there is an ongoing need to reassess the terms by which government functions are identified to the public. GSA can and should play an ongoing role in "ground truthing" the terms themselves as well as the way they are presented in the directories. GSA has engaged a contractor to work with focus groups in that regard, and other performance measures should be developed as well to assess the effectiveness of the listings.
However, when the appropriate terms have been identified by which to list Government products and services, the only remaining issues are process related - how best to gather, maintain, and make the listings available to the public. Achieving such efficiencies on a governmentwide basis should be the focus of GSA's strategy.
(For a discussion of the difference between the U.S. and Japanese approaches to competitive advantage, see Egelhoff.)
20. Re-keying listings at multiple stages of the process violates the get-it-right-the-first-time principle of TQM. Not only does it institutionalize "re-work" but it also requires multiple inspections, and those required to conduct the inspections have few if any tools with which to assess the accuracy of the numbers.
21. For example, this problem occurred when the telephone number for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) ended up as the only listing for the agency in some directories. In the context of the original template for the agency, the NCTC's "professional training" function was clear, and a separate function was described for "Education, Outreach to Local Schools and Organizations." However, in several cities the local listing was omitted, resulting in the misdirection of calls to the NCTC.
This example also highlights a problem with the centralized approach GSA has applied to the Blue Pages database. Despite the author's repeated attempts to have the NCTC listing deleted from the agency template, it continued to appear in listings provided by GSA for printing in directories for several additional cities. Indeed, it continues to be included in GSA's pilot Blue Pages site on the Internet. Unfortunately, this problem is all too typical of centralized, mainframe, stovepipe database applications. They take on a life of their own, in which both suppliers and customers become mere pawns.
22. Pejman (1997) reported a warning from House Budge Committee Chairman Kasich (R-OH) that agencies should expect budget cuts if they cannot providing convincing evidence pursuant to GPRA that their programs are making a difference for taxpayers. Kasich is quoted as saying, "We are going to sharpen our pencils, and we are going to trap them into giving us more useful information."
23. Schoemaker (1992) says, "Above-average return can derive only from assets and skills that are hard to imitate. By definition, these assets and skills cannot be bought off the shelf ..." GSA should strive to develop such unique assets and skills, rather than simply performing functions that can more readily be done by others.
24. For a discussion of E-forms, see Ambur (1997, May).
25. As far as listing costs are concerned, GSA's assumption has been that the cost of the new listings would be offset by the cost of the old listings, i.e., that there will be no additional cost. However, unless GSA negotiates no-cost listings, that assumption is highly questionable.
Many agencies have had few or no listings in most directories because they have only provided listings where they have offices physically present. Few if any agencies have had a conscious, well-conceived plan to "advertise" telephone numbers for all of their functions in any particular directory, much less nationwide. Indeed, due to cost GSA has indicated that agencies may continue to withhold their telephone numbers from directories covering areas where they do not have offices. That may be justifiable for agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for which the notion of local service may be relatively meaningless, but it does not make sense for agencies that have service responsibilities in every locality regardless of where their offices are located. All Americans have an equal right to Governmental services and there is no logical basis for denying them access to Federal telephone listings.
Taking one Federal agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as an example, approximately 40 functions have been identified in which the public might have significant interest. Traditionally, Blue Pages listings have cost in the range of $1.00 to $2.00 per month. If the agency were to list its functions in all 2,000 directories that GSA says will be updated in 1998, the cost would be on the order of $1 million. If all 6,000 directories are eventually covered, the cost might exceed $3 million annually. These figures might be taken as indicative of the gap between the universal service that should be the aim of a well-conceived strategy versus the actual objective of the Blue Pages as envisioned by GSA.
There is also a logical inconsistency in the treatment of Blue and White Pages listings. Bell Atlantic, for example, applies a "service" charge of $1.10 per month not to list a private citizen's telephone number in its printed directories ("nonlisted" numbers) and $1.45 per month if the number is to be withheld from 411 service as well ("nonpublished" numbers). Why is it that private citizens must pay to protect the privacy of their personal telephone numbers? More to the point, why is it that the taxpayers should be expected to pay to make available to the public the telephone numbers for public services performed by public agencies?
If the same logic were applied to the Blue Pages as to White Pages listings, shouldn't all telephone numbers for all public agencies be available through 411 service? Directory publishers may or may not choose to print them all. It would be logical only to print those that are most frequently used. Such determinations ought to lend themselves quite readily to benefit/cost analyses. In any event, shouldn't those agencies that choose not to make their telephone numbers available to the public be expected to justify and pay the administrative cost of withholding their numbers from the public? After all, who is paying both for the phones as well as the time of those who use them? Looking at the problem from the opposite perspective, shouldn't agencies that do make their numbers readily available in a form readily usable by the public be rewarded for their public-service orientation, e.g, by receiving credit for the administrative overhead savings derived by the telephone companies and especially by the public?
One of the cardinal rules for an effective implementation strategy is for proper incentives to be applied toward the desired outcome. The financial incentives currently applied to the Blue Pages are perverse to the objective of making public telephone numbers readily available to the public. Moreover, the cost of poor listings is borne by the public rather than by either the directory publishers or by the agencies that are ultimately responsible for them. A truly effective strategy might start with changing such incentives. The incentive should be aimed directly at serving the interests of the ultimate customer and stockholder - the American taxpayer.
26. Reality testing of the Blue Pages should extend beyond the simple issue of whether the functions are adequately described so as to enable callers to contact the appropriate offices on the first try. The entire value chain should be taken into account, particularly whether a phone conversation is really the best way to deliver the actual service needed and desired in particular instances.
27. Implicit in the Blue Pages project is the tradeoff between listing agency functions in simple alphabetical order versus listings office names within the context of the organizational structures of the Departments and agencies. While functional listings are clearly preferable for the majority of the public, for those who are familiar with organizational structures and indeed may wish to contact a particular office, the change is not without loss of value. However, this tradeoff is merely an artifact of the focus on printed directories. In the on-line rendition both structures (and others) can easily be accommodated.
28. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, agencies are required to undertake reasonable measures to accommodate the special needs of the handicapped. Thus, if agencies were printing their own telephone directories, they might be expected to make accommodations for those who can only use them with difficulty or with assistance. However, the mere fact that agencies do not print and distribute their own directories to the public does not absolve them of their responsibility for the intended outcome, which is to make public services readily available to the public. To the extent that the intended output is telephone conversation with public employees, that suggests that the telephone itself should provide all of the necessary functionality to make the appropriate connections, including directory service.
(On the other hand, the actual intended outcome should be kept in mind at all times. While "conversation" is certainly a worthy objective of family, friendship, and voluntary association, whether it is an appropriate objective of government is questionable. Conversation may be an appropriate, indeed a necessary input in many cases under current circumstances. However, the aim should always be to eliminate needless inputs - an objective that is given statutory status in GPRA and should be taken fully into account in strategic planning for the Blue Pages project.)
29. Internet telephony may hold the potential to revolutionize the delivery and cost structure for voice communications, perhaps in a way that is far better integrated with the actual service desired - which may not be conversation at all.
30. In particular, to the extent that potential callers merely want forms or information that has already been documented, the relationship between the Blue and Green Pages should be explored and developed. The X.500 Green Pages are bibliographic information relative to documents. Of the Green Pages, the M.U.S.E. report (1993) said: "If the ... directory is going to help people find Federal offices according to their mission/program activities, why should those people have to go somewhere else to find Federal information?"
The relationships with the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) and the Internet should also be explored and developed. For example, the author has suggested at GILS and Federal Webmaster meetings that the Blue Pages functional terms should be employed as a "controlled vocabulary" to assist GILS users in retrieving Federal documents. There is no reason that citizens should be forced to call anyone, or that taxpayers should be forced to pay Federal employees to receive telephone calls from citizens who merely wish to view or receive copies of Federal documents, including intelligent Federal forms rendered in all commonly used E-forms software formats.
31. Banner ads in the Blue Pages are similar to Yellow Pages ads. Their intent is to make a listing stand out from those which merely appear in tabular form. They are a form of differentiation in advertising in the directories, for which the directory publishers might expect a premium price. Thus far, in the early stages of the Blue Pages project, some publishers have offered a limited number of free banner ads, but to the extent that they continue to charge for listings, they can be expected to charge premium prices for banner ads. Likewise, agencies that desire to take advantage of the opportunity might be expected to pay such charges. However, as far as public services are concerned, endeavoring to draw disproportionate attention to a listing is quite a different matter than whether it will be listed at all. Certainly, it should be easy for citizens to locate the telephone number for any office they need to call for information on any public function. However, whether agencies should spend tax funding to compete with each other for the attention of the public is highly dubious.
32. GPRA requires Federal agencies to attend to the intended outcomes of their actions. In few if any instances are telephone conversations in and of themselves the desired outcome. They are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.
33. Stalk, Evans, and Schluman suggest that the key to transforming a set of business processes into a strategic capability is "to connect them to real customer needs." They argue, "... there is a qualitative difference in the customer focus of capabilities-driven competitors [who] conceive of the organization as a giant feed-back loop that begins with identifying the needs of the customer and end with satisfying them." (p. 134) Traditionally, other Federal agencies have been GSA's prime customers and, like all other Federal agencies, GSA ought to consider the American taxpayer as a prime customer too. However, GSA's strategy for the Blue Pages seems disproportionately focused on the printed directory publishers as the "customer" - almost to the exclusion of other Federal agencies, if not also the public users of the directories.
Stalk et al. also point out that: "Another attribute of capabilities is that they are collective and cross-functional - a small part of many people's jobs, not a large part of a few." They further suggest "this helps explain why most [organizations] underexploit capabilities-based competition. Because a capability is 'everywhere and nowhere'..." (p. 135) Certainly, the capability to maintain directory information on the functions performed by hundreds of thousands of Federal offices resides in those offices themselves, rather than at GSA. And Stalk et al. posit a general principle that suggests a more productive strategic course for GSA: "...the ultimate form of growth in the capabilities-based [organization] may not be in cloning business processes so much as creating processes so flexible and robust that the same set can serve many different businesses." (p. 142)
34. In the case of the Department of the Interior, the initial Departmental coordinator participated in developing the template for the Washington, D.C., area and in gathering the listings for a few of the pilot cities. For her efforts, she received a "Hammer Award" along with a number of the other Departmental coordinators, after which she successfully divested responsibility for the project before the real work began. She certainly cannot be faulted for that. In fact, she might be commended for her foresight - since the strategic vision as well as the procedural guidance and tools are lacking to accomplish the task efficiently and effectively. Having gained the glory, there was no incentive for her to remain a part of the team, much less its leader, particularly since her own agency was less than forthcoming in producing its listings. Unfortunately, the wisdom of her actions is a case study in the perverse incentives upon which the project is based.
35. Stewart (1993) quoted Steven Patterson of Gemini Consulting as saying of reegineering that "... you start from the customer - then figure out how to execute the work." GSA's strategy seems to emphasize the directory publishers as the customers, more so than the callers themselves. Stewart also quoted Glenn Hazard of AT&T as saying, "Designing from the outside in - all the way through - was the most critical success factor" for reengineering.
Addressing the topic of how established firms respond to threatening technologies, Cooper and Smith (1992) pointed out: "...when [a] new product [is] closely tied to [an] established organization, business strategy decisions [are] often constrained by concerns about the obsolescence of existing investments." GSA's leadership of the Blue Pages project may be constrained by this dynamic, particularly by GSA's political investment in its relationships with the telephone companies that produce and sell advertising in the printed directories.
36. Thompson and Strickland point out that strategic fit exists when the value chains of two or more organizations are sufficiently related so as to present significant opportunities for: 1) sharing skills and expertise, or 2) combining operations and thereby reducing costs. Such relationships should be synergistic, resulting in benefits or savings greater than indicated by simple addition and subtraction. (p. 194)
37. GSA should also explore the use of Web-based workflow automation to facilitate the Blue Pages data collection process. Workflow automation is best suited to high volumes of information processed in a routine, highly structured way. To avoid the inefficiencies associated with forcing users to interact with myriad systems, single-purpose "stovepipe" workflow automation systems should be avoided. The Blue Pages are but one of many sets of highly structured data that any office or employee may be called upon to supply, and each office may need to update its Blue Pages listings only infrequently. Those factors would argue for using agency-specific E-forms and workflow automation systems that can accommodate the bulk of the data collection requirements that may be imposed upon any employee or office within each agency, rather than just the Blue Pages as a single collection of data.
However, to the extent that other agencies may not already have their own X.500 directories and/or workflow automation systems, it may be appropriate for GSA to offer to host such services for them, including perhaps for State and local governmental agencies. (The Clinger-Cohen Act requires Federal agencies to take into account potential benefits to State and local governments when planning information systems.) Indeed, to the degree that GSA can foster population of the X.500 directory, any system(s) that can contribute efficiently and effectively to that outcome might be considered to be the antithesis of a stovepipe - since the aim of the X.500 directory is to provide a single, distributed source of directory services worldwide. Moreover, since it is becoming "everyone's network" and provides the most universal means of sharing information across organizations, the Internet may be an especially appropriate vehicle for automated workflow to route and track the processing of Blue, White, and other X.500 directory data collection forms.
Many agencies are not in a position nor should they endeavor to undertake workflow automation themselves - because it is complex and challenging, both technically and especially in terms of organizational acceptance and management overhead. However, those are the very reasons that it may be appropriate for GSA to take it on as an opportunity to exert strategic leadership and add value to the work processes of other agencies. The potential for strategic fit between GSA and other agencies is particularly attractive as far as the Internet, electronic commerce, and the X.500 Blue and White Pages are concerned.
38. Thompson and Strickland suggest that organizations should pursue strategic intentions that are "out of proportion to their immediate capabilities..." (p. 33) As summarized by Hamel and Pahlad, strategic intent: 1) captures the essence of winning, 2) is stable over time, and 3) sets a target that deserves personal effort and commitment. (p. 58) It is difficult to see how GSA's current strategy for the Blue Pages adheres to any of these principles. However, the potential for such a strategy is great.