27 April 2007

The Gummersbach BürgerService

NO, THIS definitely is not a fastfood where you get the German counterparts of your Jollibee or McDo burgers; the English translation in our program calls it the Citizens Bureau. Yesterday, we went to the Gummersbach city hall to see it for ourselves.

The Gummersbach BürgerService is strategically located; as one climbs up to the Rathaus ("City Hall"), it is the first government office that greets you. Iris Karras, manager of the Gummersbach BürgerService unit, said it is equipped with the essential office equipment -- computers, internet access, scanners, printers and an automated queuing system -- that enable frontliners to serve their customers efficiently and effectively.

Set up in the '90s as part of the government's response to complaints about the quality of public service, these citizens bureaus serve as a one-stop-shop for the essential municipal services in Germany.

These include passporting and issuance of identity cards; payment of taxes and fees, including the dog tax; ticketing service for concerts, museums and all other cultural activities throughout Germany; and others that municipal governments provide to their citizens.

Aside from pooling staff from existing departments, they had to hire three more personnel to ensure service availability after office hours and on Saturdays, where people are freer to avail these, Karras said.

Leisure services, including sports, actually do not belong to those mandated by the state, Christianne Wenner of the KGSt (Joint Centre for Local Government Studies) explained during our session in Köln or Cologne later in the day. But politicians would save on these mandated services to free up more funds for the former because it helps them get reelected.

Before leaving for Cologne, we dropped and spent about an hour at the BürgerService. There we met the Guado sisters who hail from Zambales. The older of the two married a German and has been here for the last 30 years; her younger sister and her children are vacationing.

She is satisfied with the BürgerService, the former Ms. Guado said. They visited today to fix her sister's visa problem -- she was allowed to stay up to three months, her children only two -- so that they can go home at the same time.

When her number came up, the friendly frontliner motioned them to come over. My colleague Magnolia joined them to actually see how customers are being handled. Everything went smooth and easy; visa concerns are beyond the scope of the BürgerService, they were told. They were then referred to the German foreign affairs office, probably in Cologne, for the appropriate solution.