The agency's four commissioners received the final proposal for the pilot center on Aug. 26 and must vote by the end of this week, according to Jeffrey Smith, the EEOC's chief financial officer. If the plan is approved, the commissioners will brief lawmakers and then begin hiring and training employees to work at the center, in hopes of getting it off the ground by April 2005 and testing it out over two years.
Six months ago, EEOC officials requested proposals from companies interested in establishing and running a pilot contact center that would tackle some of the public inquiries now handled at the agency's field offices, providing "timely and consistent information about EEOC programs, products and services." Officials selected one of those proposals and recommended the contractor to the commission.
The commission must approve the recommendation before EEOC officials proceed. Under the proposal on the commissioners' desks, members of the public who contact the service center for information would have the option of speaking with a person or listening to automated responses to frequently asked questions.
The EEOC's proposal to establish a contact center has attracted controversy from the outset. Union representatives and some officials within the agency worry that the center would eat up already scarce agency resources and provide impersonal, often inadequate, answers to complex inquiries.
According to statistics compiled for an August 2003 agency report explaining the rationale for a central customer service center, EEOC offices handle about a million unsolicited calls a year. Roughly 60 percent of callers seek general information and an assortment of other information, including updates on the status of existing charges. The remaining 40 percent ask about filing discrimination charges.
EEOC field office employees have already poured time into developing a list of answers to frequently asked questions, for use at the national contact center, said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees. The agency would be better served by hiring more permanent federal employees as investigators, she said.
"I think we're shortchanging the public," Martin said. Even if callers can talk to a live person, the contract employees answering the phone will lack the extensive training and background knowledge common in field offices, she argued. The customer service representatives would likely provide "answers in a vacuum," she said, based on prewritten responses in a training manual.
"It's like talking to a parrot," Martin said. "It can only tell you what it's been taught. But can it do any independent thinking? I don't think so."
But Smith said the contact center likely will "improve customer service, as has been the case with customer contact centers operating at other agencies."
Union representatives also have questioned the EEOC's decision to contract out the pilot version of the service center without allowing agency employees a chance to compete for the work. Agency officials have cited cost and a lack of in-house resources as a justification for contracting out the work.
Lawmakers, particularly members of appropriations committees, also have expressed reservations. Democrats in both the House and Senate in July wrote letters to fellow lawmakers urging them to enact language preventing the EEOC from contracting out a service center.
In a sharply worded July letter to EEOC Chair Cari Dominguez, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, cautioned against moving forward on a pilot center without asking lawmakers' permission.
"Please be aware that any unsupervised workforce repositioning effort not authorized by Congress, does, in fact, put you at risk of intervention by the Congress," she wrote. "I will continue to monitor the actions of the EEOC and expect you will respect the wishes of the legislature."
At a March 2003 House appropriations hearing, Dominguez told lawmakers she had informed them of plans to solicit ideas from contractors interested in running the national service center, as required under the agency's fiscal 2004 spending package. But lawmakers, including Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., expressed skepticism and warned the agency chair against acting without the appropriation committee's sanction.
A preliminary House version of the fiscal 2005 Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary appropriations bill also asks the EEOC to inform lawmakers of plans before advancing any restructuring, but allows the agency to set up a national, contractor-operated center after sharing a spending plan. The Senate has yet to vote on appropriations, but union members are pushing for stronger language in that version of the spending package.
As the EEOC continues planning for the center, agency officials will brief congressional appropriators at "every step of the process," Smith said.
The National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, originally recommended the central service center, along with various other reforms, in a February 2003 report.