Do big bureaucracies or democracies have customer-service problems?

Americans can find it difficult to find accountability with government or businesses:

Democracy’s ideal is built on a foundation of accountability. In the past, many, if not most, of the decisions that mattered to our lives were taken by people and businesses that felt close to us. That’s not the case anymore. Now all roads seem to lead to bad hold music.

Whenever we encounter a problem we didn’t create—like my outrageous electricity charge, or vacations ruined by an incompetent airline, or hospital-billing errors, or a mix-up at the IRS—all we can really do is go online for a customer-service number and cross our fingers that, by some miracle, the call won’t consume the entire day, or worse. When a person coping with cancer treatment spends hours on the phone with her insurance company or Medicaid, she may wonder why her society is so cruel, or so incompetent, or both. And she may start to see the appeal of a demagogue who promises to deliver simple solutions: the “I alone can fix it” candidate…

In the European Union, if an airline causes a flight delay of more than three hours, it has to pay you 250 to 600 euros, depending on the length of the flight. In the U.K., when a train is more than 15 minutes late, I can go to a website and, in a few minutes, demand financial compensation.

For the most part in America, when you screw up, you pay, but when corporations or governments screw up, nobody pays. Even when protections do exist, they’re difficult to navigate, or are unknown to most citizens. Other democracies have made clear it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not rocket science to solve such maddening everyday problems, and American democracy would be better off if the government devoted more effort to it.

Government could indeed be more on the side of residents rather than the side of corporations and itself.

But, I wonder if a good number of Americans would see this as an inevitable function of the size of government or business. When these actors become large, it can be harder for decisions to be made and mistakes righted. Big government and big business become caught up in trying to achieve their own goals rather than caring about the little people.

There is a long history of this thinking in the United States. How much should the federal or state government control? Do the best ideas come from established entities or from startups and more nimble organizations? It is also part of the appeal of suburbs to many where residents can have more access to and more participation in local government and decisions. One perception is that local governments have to make things work for everyday life to go on.

As sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucracies can be efficient and necessary in the modern era but they can also lead to an iron cage. Can governments that clearly work for the people reduce this feeling of the iron cage?

Architects on how they save money when building their own homes

Here are three money-saving tips architects use when constructing their own homes:

1. Prioritize—Duh.

“We worked really hard to get to the essence of what was important to us,” Jeff Stern, from Portland-based firm In Situ Architecture, tells WSJ, “rather than starting the process wanting it all and having to compromise.” For Stern, splurging on super energy-efficient triple-glazed windows meant incorporating a mix of budget-friendly solutions like concrete floors, fir cabinetry, and plastic laminate countertops.

Thomas Gluck of NYC-based firm Gluck + Architecture gave the exterior of his Tower House a tinted-glass treatment usually only used for commercial projects. “Even though the glass itself is inexpensive, the technique of applying the tint can be costly,” WSJ’s Nancy Keates writes. Still, this was a calculated risk that’s central to the design of the home; the dark glass exterior allows the structure to blend in with its woodsy surroundings. Inside the home, he kept the design and finishings simple…

2. Find off-price steals—it’s like bargain-hunting at T.J.Maxx but for building supplies.

According to David Wagner of Minneapolis-based firm Sala Architects, considerable savings can come from purchasing materials that are discounted for negligible imperfections. For example, the white-oak flooring he used for an 1,000-square-foot addition to his house was a few grades lower than what most clients demand, but he knew that “the flaws were just some ‘character knots’ in the wood.”

3. Think ahead—anticipate how design decisions will affect labor cost.

For his ultra-modern T-shaped home, architect Marc Manack from Silo AR+D in Fayetteville, Arkansas “made the infrastructure as easy as possible for contractors” by grouping utility hookups and connections together in an easily-accessible location. And because Manack did not plan for any “ornate millwork” or “high-end finishes” in his design, he was also able to reduce labor costs by hiring rough-in carpenters instead of more expensive, highly-skilled carpenters.

This helps get at two questions I’ve had about architects, builders, designers, and others that help people build and design homes:

1. Do they give their clients all the options like the cheaper ones they might use themselves? Or, do they look at the money available and present fewer options at each design decision point? Presumably, some clients only want the nicer/perfect items or labor but others might not. I suppose this might be something to negotiate or know in the beginning. Plus, we probably have different expectations: a builder, especially one who constructs large numbers of housing might have lower levels of quality compared to an architect.

2. Do the professional’s tastes actually align with what they design or recommend for clients? On one hand, authenticity is a big deal in the creative arts. On the other hand, the professional needs to have some flexibility in designing things that aren’t exactly what they would choose themselves. Again, this might be clear in the hiring and design process in the beginning.

A declining response to customer surveys?

Perhaps you, like me, has received an endless stream of invitations to take customer surveys on your receipts, in your email box, or while browsing a website. Experts note that the proliferation of these surveys may lead to a lower response rate and lower-quality data:

Surely, it’s nice to be courted for input, at least sometimes. But some consumers say they’re fed up with giving time-consuming feedback for free, don’t like being drawn into a data web used to evaluate employees or feel companies don’t act on the advice they get. Others say they simply don’t have anything revelatory to impart about, say, ordering a shirt or buying a package of pens…

“Survey fatigue” has long been a concern among pollsters. Some social scientists fear a pushback on feedback could hamper important government data-gathering, as for the census or unemployment statistics.

If more people say no to those, “the data, possibly, become less trustworthy,” said Judith Tanur, a retired Stony Brook University sociology professor specializing in survey methodology.

Response rates have been sinking fast in traditional public-opinion phone polls, including political ones, said Scott Keeter, the Pew Research Center’s survey director and the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Pew’s response rates have fallen from about 36 percent in 1997 to 11 percent last year, he said. The rate includes households that weren’t reachable, as well as those that said no.

This is an issue that is bigger than customer surveys: it can be harder to reach people today with surveys because of call screening, the inability to contact people on cell phones, and the problems with doing web surveys. All of this means that people who conduct surveys will have to work even harder to get people to respond.

I wonder if the solution is to give customers better incentives for filling out surveys. A lot of these surveys include the chance for winning a prize but perhaps these could be increased or customers could earn points (and be able to redeem them) for giving consistent feedback.

I can honestly say that I very rarely fill out such surveys, even knowing how difficult it is for companies and research organizations to obtain such information. I recently started filling out a survey for Marriott after staying a few nights but the survey was ridiculously long and detailed so I quit 30% in.

Facebook: up or down?

Stories about Facebook have been plentiful in recent weeks as the company apparently prepares to announce that it has 500 million members and the trailer for The Social Network has hit the web.

Wired suggests “Five things that could topple Facebook’s empire.” One interesting tidbit out of this article: the American Customer Satisfaction Index (from the business school at the University of Michigan) found that Facebook has ratings similar to cable companies and airlines. Also, Facebook is similarly rated to MySpace. Overall, “That puts the world’s most visited website in the bottom 5 percent of private sector companies in the survey.”