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Service, service, service: The new public sector mantra

31st Oct 2008
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For several years, the public sector has been working to make egovernment more effective by adopting new customer relationshp techniques. Jennifer Kirkby explains why it is being successful - and what the public sector can learn from working with the private sector.

By Jennifer Kirkby, consulting editor

In the drive to get government services online by the end of 2005, scant attention was paid to service quality by public sector organisations with little innate customer marketing knowledge. In fact, only after the deadline passed was the searchlight turned onto 'the customer' and the inventiveness of employees set free with CRM techniques borrowed from the private sector.

"We have to accept that having all Government services online by [2005] is not as good as having better services online. The only reason we should be doing any of this is if we can deliver better services online."

Dr Ian Kearns, head of the Digital Society Programme at the Institute for Public Policy Research (2002)

From Gershon to Varney

The last MyCustomer report on CRM in the public sector in 2005, just prior to the eGovernment deadline (See 'Governments Redefine Marketing') concluded that "despite assurances that the modernisation drive, currently focused through the Gershon Report, was to reallocate resources from back-office to front-office for service improvement, customers still seem to have a back seat – somewhere behind the back office".

The advice to public sector then was to make egovernment more effective by adopting new customer-centric marketing techniques – rather than old mass market ones. Looking at customer relationship management activity in the public sector this year, I believe things have indeed moved that way and changed for the better. Rob Denton of Navigator Customer Management agrees, and says that only after egovernment targets had been met did real CRM initiatives start in earnest, motivated by a need to "justify service improvements and cost savings".

The focus for Government CRM initiatives is now the 2006 Varney report on service transformation. But the real drive for improvement seems to be coming bottom up and particularly from non-central Government organisations like local authorities and the police. At a recent conference the ‘man from the ministry', sent to outline the plan, seemed distinctly behind the game.

"A target culture without a citizen's perspective is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Excellence in public services cannot be achieved by centrally driven targets and national league tables alone."

Julie Spence, Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire

Doing more with less

The aim of public sector now is to make a radical shift in service provision so that they can do more with less money. Over the last few years, targets, new legislation and a growing, increasingly diverse population have heaped more duties on a sector that has not been given any more resources.

So current messages revolve around:

  • Service transformation for sustainable change

    This area covers customer strategy, cultural change and quality performance management. The aim is to give better services to the citizen and a better deal for the taxpayer – elections are always around the corner. Particular issues include:

    • How to develop strategies for customer service.
    • How to change people's behaviour from 'we know best' to 'we need to listen to the customer': particularly if they have been in public service for sometime.
    • How do we encourage genuine innovation in services, rather than simply refine what we have.
    • Which service accreditation should we go for – by December 08 all government departments have to have signed up for one.
  • Working smarter to do more with less

    The areas of focus at the moment are around customer interactions, particularly contact centres and shared services – but face to face conversations are making a comeback. Not only must resources be highly targeted, but the public sector needs to detect fraud quickly. Particular issues include:

    • How do we tackle avoidable contact – a key mantra of Varney, now called NI14 (national indicator). But avoidable contact needs a careful definition if needy people are not to be excluded.


    • How do we 'theme' online services by customer need – another key mantra for making information more accessible.
    • What services are shared with whom – sharing best practice has always been a public sector ethos, and beacon organisations abound, but collaboration is a new idea.
    • How to use contact centres more effectively – whilst self service was a dream for the egovernment project, the modus operandi for the public sector was often letter/post, so contact centres offer a channel for new services and a more effective outlet to the many people who don't have internet access at home


    • Adopting a problem solving philosophy

      The main recourse for this is customer research – a step beyond 'consultation' and a path to greater insight if organised properly. Popular studies include customer satisfaction and mystery shopping for service improvement, but customer needs research and geodemographic profiling are also high up the list of must do. Particular issues include:

      • What data can be shared between departments under the data protection act - bearing in mind the politically sensitive nature of personal data at the moment
      • We need to uncover the 'real' views and priorities of local people
      • How do we segment our citizens in order to group services, e.g. moving schools, redundancy, old age

Public private partnerships

Few of these issues are the sole province of the public sector, many companies face similar conundrums. So working and learning across sectors to find solutions, rather than just between government organizations, is a viable option. But first people have to overcome traditional public/private sector perceptions. At a Service Transformation workshop earlier this year people from both sectors seemed genuinely amazed that they shared so many concerns, and found collaborating on case studies both refreshing and enlightening.

"The public sector is a complex beast and tends to lumber years behind private companies in the take-up of practices and technologies."

public sector perception from 2006 Varney Report

That the two sectors have and should become closer in service deliver is sensible, given that they are serving the same customer. Any differences between them spring from culture; shorter quarterly driven timeframes in the private sector combined with market dynamics, whilst the public sector is more risk adverse and has to deal fairly with all comers.

The public sector's aim is often to reduce use, whilst conversely the private sector wants to cross and up sell. But in both sectors there is a growing need to use resources efficiently and prove their social worth on the balance sheet. There are far more similarities than differences.

Ways to solve the issues

Based on cross-sector skills collaboration in several private/public sector workshops, here are eight solutions for working smarter in the public sector to achieve quality and efficiency:-

1. Making staff partners in the solution

Employees are always busy but are they effective? Move your employees from a constant state of busy (lots of action with little focus) to taking purposeful action, by giving them a good employee experiences – that is where the customer experience starts. Cultural change is embedded when it is self-motivated. Haringey council have achieved this by putting their staff at the centre of their customer improvement programme with a Customer Focus Network (See 'Engaging employees the John Lewis way').

2. Giving facilitative leadership

Julie Spence, Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire advises the public sector to define for staff what citizen focus is and is not; then with guidelines they can get on with the detail and delivery.

    Citizen focus myths

      a. Face to face contact
      b. Spending more time with people
      c. Being nice
      d. Doing everything in the guidance/doctrine
      e. Soft and fluffy
      f. Doing everything the citizen wants
      g. Neighbourhood policing

      Citizen focus facts
      i. Adult to adult relationships,
      ii. Listening and understanding
      iii. Being responsive to citizens views on good service
      iv. Being fair
      v. Treating people with integrity, respect and sensitivity
      vi. Positive, proactive, professional service
      vii. Supportive development of staff

3. Using story to move culture

Story or narrative techniques can be used to uncover cultural attitudes in an organisation, and reset them to those required to transform the service (See 'Customer Experience: The Voice of the Customer').

4. Making use of a performance management framework (PMF)

By December 2008, public sector organisations need to have a contact centre PMF in place and can choose either the Customer Service Excellence (CSE) or the Cabinet Office's Contact Centre Performance Management Framework. The CCPMF has 24 qualitative and quantitative indicators developed by the Contact Council. The CSE model maps to CCPMF and is a revision of Charter Mark based on research by MORI into what good public sector customer service is:

  • Delivery
  • Timeliness
  • Information 
  • Professionalism 
  • Staff attitude

Whilst organisations like the Department of Works and Pensions are finding the PMF useful for driving the internal change (it is often necessary to use analysis to get service managers and ministers to buy into changes rather than pay lip service to 'fashionable' ideas) and collaborating with other good practice organisations, others caution that strict targets can drive 'deviant' behaviour, e.g. making up client cases and 'planting evidence'.

"You can hit the target – but miss the point."

Public Sector Employee

5. Avoidable contact

This can be defined as "customers unnecessarily contacting an organisation because there is a service failure" – e.g. a service has not been explained properly. The Lean Movement is keen on this area and companies like Amazon have been practicing it for some time. Tackling avoidable contact needs a range of techniques including customer journey mapping, sales through service (See 'Sales through service: The start of social business'), root cause analysis to get to the heart of the problem; and operational customer feedback. Hertfordshire County Council are a case study in making improvements with a combination of journey mapping and staff empowerment.

6. Channel migration

Despite egovernment, many customers still use the telephone; can these people be migrated to cheaper channels? Companies such as TomTom have successfully moved customers to 'Frequently Asked Questions' pages on the internet (see 'Your call is important to us'), and mobile messaging will be a major topic in 2009 that the Department of Works and Pensions are interested in.

7. Sharing services

Call Derbyshire is an excellent example of a unified contact centre achieving good results for all the county councils in the area. Citizens only have one number to access a range of services. But the road to good intentions took four years and was paved with difficult battles with elected members to get them 'on-board'.

8. Customer segmentation

Customer insight is of growing importance to the public sector and segmentation an area of research receiving a great deal of attention. It is often more efficient to provide services for a needs group, e.g. elderly, than separately. Before their change of name to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC), the Child Support Agency (CSA) carried out research to segment non-resident parents into 'risk of defaulting' groups, so that they could devise tailored treatments for each.

Bottom line

The customer service landscape is changing fast in both the private and public sector. Whilst many 'beacon' companies are in the private sector – e.g. Amazon, John Lewis, Apple - the bulk of organisations are facing very similar challenges. Given differing skills and experience in the two sectors, exploring social marketing through cross-sector co-creation should be considered as a path to insight and innovation.

I would like to thank CallNorthWest for their invitation to their Service Transformation workshop, Proctor Consulting for their invitation to work on their Open Mind event, and all the Government Departments I have spoken to during the year.

Further reading


Related articles

Government contact centres

CRM in public services

Sustaining excellence

Citizen insight


Replies (1)

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By greatemancipator
01st Nov 2008 10:48

Lots of good work there. Not actually sure what the mantra is - there are numerous streams from central to local government all with a differing slant on it!


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