What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
California’s self-beleaguered Employment Development Department has shown a clear inability to successfully do its most basic task – that is, getting money into the hands of people who were legitimately unemployed by the pandemic while simultaneously keeping it out of the hands of criminals intent on defrauding the agency.
Beyond that, the EDD has also failed at another basic task – providing accurate, timely, and proper information to the millions of Californians who rely on the agency just to get by. This lack of a coherent communications effort is not just an irritant; it has, at worst, directly led to people being unable to receive the benefits they are due and, at least, increased the level of frustration with, mistrust of, and anger directed at the agency.
From a call center so inept that unemployment claimants are literally paying to use computer apps to call the EDD on their behalf just so they have a better chance of at least being placed hold to an inexplicable underuse of its own direct-to-claimant messaging and email systems to its shaky reliance on press releases and social media to disseminate only occasionally accurate information, the agency, experts say, seems to be captured by its own problematic internal culture.
Do you guys think you could set your phone system up to hang up in the very beginning instead of forcing me to go through the menus for two and a half minutes to see if im getting hung up on? Pwitty pwease?
— rejeckted (@rejeckted) February 18, 2021
One particularly glaring example of this problem was a tweet the agency – a large percentage of its Twitter followers are frustrated claimants hoping the glean any information – sent out in mid-February:
“For many of us, social media is a vital source for news, info, & connecting with others. At EDD, we believe online conversations should remain respectful & courteous to everyone. We welcome your comments/feedback & ask that you adhere to our Comment Policy.”
The responses were rather less than “respectful & courteous.” Here are some of the less obscenity laced replies:
- EDD’s tone-deafness and gall at posting the above tweet would be comical if people’s lives weren’t being destroyed by their hands…
- …We’re trying to feed our children & keep a roof over their heads. We are caring for loved ones and trying not to drown. You’ll need to forgive us if we aren’t as well-behaved as your policy would like us to be.
- How abouuuttt…you guys properly train your staff to handle the mess you made, update your technology appropriately and stop making millions of us homeless? That would be AWESOME! If you can’t fix our problems – stop posting on your social media like there isn’t a problem.
- Holy S**T this is incredible. Did they just basically say “stop being angry in our Twitter posts” and afterwards direct us to automated help lines?????
(You can see the entire thread here – https://twitter.com/CA_EDD/status/1362197608693780480)
How abouuuttt…. you guys properly train your staff to handle the mess you made, update your technology appropriately and stop making millions of us homeless? That would be AWESOME! If you can't fix our problems – stop posting on your social media like there isn't a problem.
— Quintana (@quintanadawg) February 18, 2021
This tweet could be seen as emblematic of the agency’s lack of focus servicing claimants in need.
“If, as this shows, they are actually reading the responses to their tweets by claimants, they should be sending out tweets that are actually helpful and address topics that people are actually raising in the comments,” said Ginny Silver, whose YouTube channel features near-daily videos that explain EDD procedures and policies in as clear a manner as possible. “For them to use Twitter that way is just a waste of energy.”
Silver’s channel – which she started after her wedding photography business was shuttered by the pandemic – has chalked up more than a million views per month since last spring. The agency itself has no such similar program and Silver’s attempts to interact positively with the EDD was met with indifference, receiving her first response to her multitude of emails only last week.
“If a random YouTuber can do it, I do not see why they couldn’t,” Silver said. “They are making an effort in putting out more information, just not the kind of information people need and in a way people can access it,” noting the agency’s failure to directly communicate with claimants through its internal messaging system.
The communications problems stem, at least in part, from how the agency views itself, said Daniela Urban, Executive Director of the Center for Workers’ Rights.
“They see themselves as a tax collection agency first and they do not review their procedures through the lens of the claimants,” Urban said. “They view everything through their internal systems.”
For example, last year what turned out to be a specific computer glitch held up benefits for thousands of people. When Urban’s Center confronted the EDD with the problem, she was told that the claimants “must not be reading their mail” and that the problem was not on the agency’s end. After four months of back and forth, the agency finally admitted the problem was in fact theirs and 13,000 claimants had their benefits restored overnight.
Urban said she understands EDD’s impulse to protect its staff but that a better way to do so would be to better train them to provide better claimant service.
“They need to make changes at a systemic level as opposed to trying to fix each individual issue one-by-one on the phone,” Urban said. “The leadership from the top should look to the claimant experience first and their own processes second. They must be more responsive.”
The agency’s communications strategy needs adjusting, quickly, said southern California public relations expert Robert Fisher. “In a crisis situation – especially when there is a hostile environment – it is wise to solicit feedback – but it was wrong for them to do so in a manner that exposes them to further negative comments,” Fisher said. “That was insanity.”
Fisher echoed both Silver and Urban, saying the agency needs to listen to the feedback they are already getting from claimants and integrate, through a proper data analytics system, those concerns into their communication goals going forward.
By focusing on the claimant – and not the bureaucracy – the agency could better position itself and at least be able to appear that they are trying their best.
“We know they need numerous changes which would take a great deal of time and resources to undergo – a complete tech overhaul, updates to reflect the pandemic, etc. – but with communications there are so many things they could fix simply and immediately,” Silver said. “But they don’t.”
Efforts to elicit a comment from the EDD agency were not successful.
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