The public sector has increasingly been grappling with the question of how to make the public sector more customer focussed.
This is a tricky question, as the relationship between the public sector and its customers (everybody!) is quite different from the relationship most other brands have with their customers.
“Public-sector management is in flux, thanks to the increasingly rapid pace of social, political, and technical change. Economic crises, privatisation, budget cuts, the continuing evolution of e-government and increasing scrutiny from citizens mean that the public-sector organisations of the future will need to be more citizen-focused, more business-like and smarter in their use of technology.”
(The Economist, 2010)
“The Government is clear that if it is going to provide first class public services it needs to redesign the system around the user. The ‘user as customer’ theme is already familiar in government reforms.To deliver lasting results, organisations need to embed customer focus throughout the system. Implementation must start by understanding the needs, expectations and behaviours of the public and then by adjusting every aspect of the organisation to align with customer values. This includes the entire delivery chain from policy through to front-line services – including strategy, performance measures, information systems and support processes.
(Customer-focused-government: From policy to delivery, HMRC)
The public sector has made decent efforts in trying to build a relationship with its customers. This has involved big initiatives like Transformational Government and HMRC introducing online self assessment forms, to smaller ones like the NHS (or rather some surgeries) texting customers confirming appointments and sending reminders. These are just a few examples, among other examples of good practice.
But customer response has been mixed. Although the public sector wants to match the service levels of the best brands in the country, the reality of our relationship with the state makes this very difficult. This is especially true in the face of inevitable service cuts in the wake of reduced public spending.
What are the reasons for customer discontent?
Mostly it is because we find it hard to imagine ourselves as ‘customers’ of the public sector. There are a few reasons for this (which lies in the fundamental differences between the public and private sector):
- Lack of choice: we often do not have a ‘choice’ in the matter, and choice is a very important aspect of being a customer. We cannot choose to be customers of the tax department for example, or choose our healthcare provider (in the case of the NHS). Choice is limited or non-existent in many cases
- No competition in the market. The services provided by the public sector are often not provided by anyone else, this is frustrating for some of us, as we cannot choose another provider if we are unhappy.
- Dependency: some of us are dependent on the public sector, as in the case of those who receive Benefits, and the relationship here is quite different, that of giver and receiver, where the giver has more power but the receiver has ‘rights’.
- The customer is not always right: Public sector services, promises, delivery have boundaries and we (their customers) aren’t always right. There are checks and balances at every stage of the relationship. We have an ambivalent response to this. We demand that these checks and balances exist to stop ‘others’, ‘benefit thieves’ and ‘cheats’ in order to ensure public money is spent wisely, but on the other hand don’t want the law to come down hard on us.
- Reciprocity and equality: there is a perceived imbalance in reciprocity and equality. When we buy a product or service from the private sector, it has a clear price tag and we receive the agreed benefits, the relationship is reciprocal and equal. There are tangible benefits that we can feel/touch/see as a result of making the payment. With the public sector there is a sentiment that the relationship is not equal. It is common to find people complaining, ‘The taxes are so high and what do I get in return, nothing!’ Most of us feel services are unfairly distributed and down to ‘post-code lottery’. We feel we are putting in a lot more than we are getting back. The price tag is perceived to be too high and the product/service is not tangible/worth it and not seen as value for money.
“Citizens expect more information both on the services they consume and on the value for money they get for their tax bill. Expect much more information to be made available directly to citizens and much more hard-headed qualification and monitoring of public investment projects.”
(The Economist, 2010).
In my opinion, the return is quite high: healthcare, transport, social security, benefits, education, defence, law and order etc, to name just a few. However, on a day to day basis most of us forget this, as the price tag is too removed from the point of delivery. Where the return is apparent, i.e. benefits, it is also complex as some are seen as givers (people paying tax) and others takers (people on benefits). Giver and takers are not always mutually exclusive of course, a person claiming benefits may have paid taxes for years, but this is not apparent and less acknowledged. In short there is no perceived tangible reciprocity, equality or value for money in the public sector as there is in the private sector. Of course the fact that we are funding the products and services in the first place further exacerbates the issue.
Furthermore, the recession showed us that the private sector adapts to our needs and responds quickly. Last year, a glance at the TV/newspaper will made this apparent with the number of discounts/ offers/vouchers available to ‘help us’. The state also responded, less directly by modifying their service levels to us as customers; and more directly by tackling the banking crisis.
Rationally this makes sense, but the resulting public spending cuts mean, that on a personal level, we feel we are being punished for someone else’s bad behaviour – firstly because we are victims of the behaviour, and secondly because we have to accept reduced levels of service (as well as tax rises) to put it right.
“Citizens and businesses will become increasingly demanding over the next five years as consumers of public services. A large majority of survey respondents anticipates that they will expect greater personalisation, faster and more accurate service fulfilment and more proactive communication, without paying more or sacrificing quality enhancements. Organisations will respond with streamlined delivery channels, more training in citizen-facing skills and more cost-efficient processes.”
(The Economist, 2010)
So what can the public sector do to remain customer focused (especially through the spending cuts)? Next week I pick this up in ‘lessons from brands’ that the public sector could learn from.Watch this space!
This entry was posted on Friday, 9 Jul 2010 at 11:16 am and is filed under Conversation economy, Customer Experience, Public Sector, Service.
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