For the first test in the survey, I called the Alcohol Treatment Routing Referral Service of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. My ostensible purpose was to locate the facility nearest me that offers treatment for alcoholism. I thought this question could be easily answered by a hotline that billed itself as the “Alcohol Treatment Routing Service.” I was wrong. Upon dialing the number, I reached a recording detailing a menu of services I could access from the line. I selected the choice for referral to the treatment center closest to me. After a couple of rings, the operator informed me that the number I had called was disconnected. Disconnected? I tried the hotline once more to make sure I had not dialed incorrectly and again I got the same result. I dialed the number for the third time and chose the option to receive printed material. The line transferred me to a completely different agency, where I had to listen to a whole new recording with its own set of choices before I could actually reach the option to receive the printed information.

Clearly helping alcoholics find the road to recovery isn’t of particular interest to the government, but what about helping smokers kick the habit? Certainly, I reasoned, with all the anti-tobacco hubbub in recent months, the government is keeping its Smoking and Health Information Line well staffed. Certainly not. After calling the number – and choosing to hear the information in English – I selected the “quit tips” option from the electronic menu. But when I selected the option to receive the information by mail, a recording informed me that I would have to send a written request to a given address before I would be sent any helpful tips. This hotline’s middleman approach to helping smokers seemed like bureaucracy at its worst.

My next call, to the Drug Treatment Referrals line, reached yet another electronic menu, and I chose the selection for treatment options in my state. I was promptly disconnected. I went through the same process again three hours later, only to achieve the same result.

Desperate for a positive phone experience, I dialed the Federal Drug Administration’s Consumer Inquiries Line to ask about the possible side effects of Viagra. In light of the popularity the drug is currently enjoying, I assumed my inquiry would be simple enough to answer. I should have remembered what happens to people when they assume. My call was answered by (surprise!) a recording. From that original recording, I had to go through four electronic menus before I finally reached the option for questions about prescription drugs. Despite the seeming eternity I had spent on the phone, my spirits rose in the hopes that I had finally reached the outlet that could answer my question. These hopes were promptly deflated, however, by a busy signal. Two hours later I called the line again, repeated the whole process, and achieved identical results. Maybe all those FDA operators were off testing the newfound Viagra. More likely, they hadn’t bothered to test their consumer information hotline in a long while.

On a more serious note, I decided to place my next call to the Cancer Information Service. After two electronic menus and nine rings, I finally reached an operator who promised to send the information about mammograms that I requested. Victory? Not quite. More than five weeks later, no letter, package, or any other sort of communication had arrived.

While many of the lines I tried had been disconnected, at least they were all free to call. The same could not be said for the Passport Information Line. When I phoned that number, I reached a recording right away, which informed me that it would take 25 business days to process a passport, gave the agency’s web page address, and then instructed that all other questions should be directed to the National Passport Information Center – at a cost of 35 cents a minute. It seems that in order to get any real service from a government agency, you have to pay.

Just when I was ready to concede defeat, I had a breakthrough. I called Americorps to request an application for the agency’s programs. Upon dialing the number listed in the phone book (a local number for the District headquarters), I reached a recording. The message offered no menu choices, but instead gave an 800 number to call and a web site address to access for more information. I called the number, reached a recorded menu, and selected the choice for general information. The next recording provided another menu option for getting an application. After five minutes, I reached a set of four recorded questions about my name, address, as well as other pertinent information, and following each one I gave an answer. Even though the automatic voice told me that it would take seven to 10 days for the application to arrive, I got it five days later. Finally, I had found one agency that gave what it promised, even if I had to travel through an electronic maze to get it.

My hands-down best experience occurred with a call to the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referrals line. For the first time that day, I reached a real live person – something I had began to doubt still existed on government phone lines. Intoxicated by the all-but-forgotten sound of another human voice, I chatted a bit with the operator, who promised to send out the information. (It arrived just 11 days later.)

At last I seemed to be on a run of good luck. I called the Immunization Referral Locator Service to ask where the closest place I could receive immunization for my imaginary kids. I reached a recording after nine rings, then, after selecting the option for immunization centers near me, I waited for six minutes. Someone finally came on the line and answered my question. Next, I called the Peace Corps to ask for an application. After one electronic menu, I was connected to an operator who asked for my name and address and sent out the application materials, which I received 15 days later. My next call, to the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Hotline, was resolved even more quickly. I reached an operator right away and asked her for information about syphilis. While she said she did not have any specific information on the disease, she could send me information about STDs in general, which arrived 10 days later. The Transportation Automobile Safety Hotline also proved helpful. I called with a question about the crash results for a 1991 Honda Accord. After going through three electronic menus and four recorded questions, an automatic voice promised my information would be mailed within five business days. Indeed, 11 days later I received the material. Granted, all of these calls were time-consuming, but they did in the end produce the information I was seeking.

But all good things must come to an end. Buoyed by my recent successes, I decided to contact the most reviled government agency of all: the Internal Revenue Service. After my experience, I understand what those congressional hearings were all about. When I first reached the IRS, a recording informed me that because of the “extreme call volume” only automated service was available. I selected the option to receive a transcript of my account from the electronic menu given. After requesting my social security number and reading it back to me, the recording asked if my return had been jointly filed. I entered my answer and all of the sudden an operator kindly informed me that the number I was trying to reach had been disconnected.

The only thing more frustrating than attempting to get information from the government is trying to get a job with it. Having finished the first part of my survey, I decided to call various agencies to inquire about available government jobs. I soon discovered that the agencies’ job opportunity lines are no better maintained than their information hot lines.

The job opportunity lines of three of the agencies I phoned, the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Justice, were not in service. I thought my experience with these three agencies said it all about my ability to find out about available government jobs, but I soldiered on anyway. I called the Department of Defense and reached an operator after one ring. My hope was that she could steer me in the right direction. Wrong. She turned out just to be the first step in a complicated process leading nowhere. After explaining my request to the operator, she gave me another number to call. Calling that number, I reached another operator who gave me yet another number to call. That number connected me to a voice mail system, which was full, according to a recorded message.

My adventure with the Department of Education proved depressingly similar. This department did not have a job information line, so I called the central number. From an electronic list, I selected the option for general information and reached an operator who gave me another number. When I called this next number, an operator gave me the number for the job line, which I telephoned repeatedly. No one ever answered.

Finally, with a call to the Department of Health and Human Services, I had some luck. Like the DOE, HHS has no job line, so I dialed the central number. I reached an operator, who connected me to the Human Resources Department. The operator at that number gave me the number for a hot line, which had recordings for several job opportunities and offered the option of receiving the information on a particular opening by fax.

I had an equally positive experience with the Office of Personnel Management, which also had a job information hot line with recordings listing the jobs available. OPM’s line also offered to fax me a hard copy of any of the recordings I heard – and they promised to do it within 24 hours.

My foray into the world of government employment proved to be almost identical to my attempts to pry information out of government agencies. The only new insight I gained from this search was real people acting as operators can be just as frustrating and unhelpful as automated menus. In general, however, I learned an important lesson from my government phone odyssey. Government inefficiency is still alive and well and living in the phone systems of federal agencies. You must have patience and a large amount of spare time if you expect to get a question answered. These lines are not for the easily frustrated. While there are some good agencies out there, with phone numbers that connect you to where you want to go and operators who can answer your question or send the information you want, for the most part the phrase “government help line” is a misnomer. In far too many of these agencies, help lines seem to exist just for the sake of existing, and not really because the agencies want to provide anyone with any help.

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