My Life as a State Employee

I occasionally write about state government issues, trying to make the point that state government could be more efficient and, in many cases, could do more with less. I do not make my suggestions from some philosophical redoubt far removed from the day-to-day churning of the bureacracy. I am a state employee and I try every day to practice what I preach.

Today’s Gail Kelley column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch business section reports on the latest improved service offering from the little organization I’m proud to say I founded, the Virginia Business Information Center of the Department of Business Assistance. An article about the center previously appeared in the Virginian-Pilot.

The Virginia Business Information Center is a place Virginians who want to start a business or who have questions about their existing business can go to get a real person offering straight answers and information. The center can be reached by toll-free phone, email, and now live chat from its website. The center actually answers upwards of 70% of its phone calls live and returns calls the same business day almost 100% of the time. The center does it without any special appropriation from the General Assembly; it just uses authorized employees of the agency in a way that improves their accessibility to taxpayers.

Somewhere back in 1999 or so, the Department of Business Assistance paid a consultant around $30,000 to study the idea of a Virginia Business Information Center. The consultant demonstrated a need and projected that it would take over $1 million dollars, a group of new employees, a certain amount of square footage, etc. As Virginia’s economy began to tighten, that kind of appropriation became untenable and the project was shelved.

Fast forward to 2002. Governor Warner came into office with his “One Virginia” vision, but budget cuts, too. What I had been doing was essentially eliminated, but I still had a job. I asked agency management if I could start a Virginia Business Information Center. I knew in my heart it was needed and that I could make it sucessful. All I requested was a toll-free number and an email address. I believed strongly that a toll-free number was needed to equalize the access between someone from the West End of Richmond making a local call and someone in Grundy dropping quarters into a pay phone. Somewhat reluctantly, in late 2002, they gave in, gave me what I asked for, and I became the Virginia Business Information Center.

In my first month of operation, January 2003, I got 130 calls and a handful of emails. Now, the center gets well over a thousand calls a month and several hundred emails. The average monthly bill for the toll-free number is $55. Contrast that expense with the old model (still used, too often in my estimation), of sending one or more state employees in a state car to a meeting where the topic is the agency’s services–chief among them the Virginia Business Information Center! By October 2003 the center was busy enough that another state employee was moved to work in the center and by mid-2004 two other employees began to spend 20% of their time answering center inquiries.

The center has harnessed the power of the internet to reduce the costs of providing services; indeed, it has expanded the services offered at no additional costs. If the center didn’t exist, I have no doubt that I’d still be driving around the state, going to Chamber of Commerce meetings, and totally ignoring the huge customer base of people starting a business and those strugggling to improve their existing business. Since I started the center, I have spent two nights in motel on state business. I used to stay overnight at least once every two weeks.

There’s so much more to be done, though. Every Virginia agency that interacts with business could make their web-based information more user-friendly and could design their information to answer the real questions people ask, not the ones the agency makes up to answer. Agencies could be much more responsive to business, or they could save by letting the Virginia Business Information Center take their questions.

Last week I physically spoke with or answered the chat or email questions of almost 200 individuals. That’s a typical week for me. Yet I’ve never been asked by one of these “business” commissions or ad hoc business study groups to describe what entrepreneurs and small businesses tell me they need. I’ve never been asked to rate the customer service levels of the myriad of agencies that serve businesses, even though those who call me give me tons of feedback.

I think the kind of approach that I took with the Virginia Business Information Center could work with other agencies. Focusing on the customer–the taxpayer–is very clarifying. It’s a great way of deciding how to cut out expenses and improve efficiency. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing, no matter how little impact it has beyond the lady at the other end of the phone who just wants to know how to start a home-based business and be “legal.”

Now, the next time I rant and rave about taxes and state government, I hope you’ll understand my perspective and at least give me credit for being willing to work under the terms of the policies I recommend.


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Comments

  1. This is a great post, Will. Your experience with the VBIC needs to be studied by every agency head…especially those of the incoming governor, whomever he is, in January.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar

    Thanks, Chad. I’d like to think that someone might find VBIC to be worthy of study, but it’s more exciting to travel, to schmooze with the movers and shakers, and to build an agency empire of pr and admin folks. So, I don’t expect to get any calls.

  3. Will – does your office give presentations (or have materials) on getting localities to address the startups? … Those who just want to know how to start a home-based business and be “legal”?

    Part of the problem seems to be that local ‘Economic Developers’, Councils and Boards concentrate on big businesses and (perceived) permanence. It’s frustrating to see entrepreneur’s rezoning requests encumbered with terms that prohibit expansion.

    To many ED/ID offices :
    Have no entrepreneurial experience in-house
    Prioritize IA roads or cash matches over business
    See schmoozing with the movers and shakers as vital
    Think government shapes the economic environment
    Pre-screen potential companies without cause

    Another problem is that “Richmond” (whoever that is, but I expect you know) fancies themselves as experts. The shell-building advice is one example: ‘build a shell building and they will come’. Ten years later without tenants, the advice is that industry needs shell-buildings twice the formerly recommended size, but ‘build it and they will come’

    I’d love to see startup business packages for localities. Something along the lines of what you do; a packet with all local regs, taxes, forms, and zoning, accompanied with a plain-English guide. If the ED was competent, there’d be a followup with helpful advice on expansion.

    A team of Vehrs, Bacon, and some others (Hanks &Williamson?) including a broadband expert could convince localities to –at a minimum– to give some attention and less hurdles to people trying to startup. Dunno if it’s possible or what it would take, but there’s a limited number of distribution centers that’ll locate in the Valley, and unlimited small firms.

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar

    We’re certainly available to give the kind of presentations you mention, although the Small Business Development Centers supposedly do that. We even have a CD on starting a business, although that is more complex than most folks need.

    I have tried to put our materials into libararies so that they become mini-do-it-yourself business start-up centers. About one-third of Virginia libararies requested our materials when I offered them.

    You’re right; EDs are evaluated on their ability to shoot big game. They have no incentive to develop small businesses. I recognized that and rather than fight it, I have tried to offer VBIC as a service where EDs can refer entrepreneurs.

    Email, call, or chat with us. Thanks for your observations and interest.

  5. CosmicMojo Avatar

    If you need to know how to start a business, call Greater Richmond Partnership or the Chamber of Commerce, or others, and get the CD about how to start a business. IT’s a step-by-step flow chart. Easy as pie. There’s one for each locality. They also have a brochure on the same subject at the Small Business Development Center.
    cosmojo

  6. CosmicMojo Avatar

    Also, the Innsbrook libary has a great business resource center.

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