Unleashing the energy of citizens
Public services have made great progress in recent years when it comes to how they manage citizens. Gone are the days when County Hall was the place you visited to register complaints about local services rather than the elegant hotel it is today.
Now, with most local authorities, you can report a fault with traffic lights or a potentially dangerous tree, and engage in an online discussion about when the problem will be fixed and whether it has been fixed satisfactorily. This is a significant move away from websites being no more than an online directory, to ensuring much greater engagement and accessibility.
Of course, things aren't perfect. In many cases the citizen is assumed to know whom they need to contact and how to frame their request. Still, things have improved a lot. Just as in the private sector, the days when citizens needed to queue in offices to pay and/or get information are largely over, and with them the complex and expensive infrastructure that went with this approach.
Remember the Electricity Board shops or how we used to buy motor insurance by going to a broker's shop? We have all benefited from changes like these, not just from the increased accessibility of public services, but also as taxpayers from the lower cost of more effective contact channels.
However, our research shows that much of the effort of the public sector in improving citizen management has been focused on contact management. Here, the energy of citizens is assumed to be translated into a desire to know about and benefit from existing services. Their desires, commitment and energy in relation to modification of services or indeed new services is largely assumed to be fed into the public service system via the ballot box.
This translates – via the political process – into a set of policy requirements or objectives, but somehow the possibility of involving the citizen directly in this process is lost along the way. This means that most public services are in effect designed with the service provider in mind and we are a long way from achieving the kinds of public-service innovation which involve customers more in service specification and choice.
For example, in New Zealand there are both public and private recycling collectors, between which customers can choose based on their desired frequency of collection, type of refuse or method of payment. This demonstrates an important point: citizen choice between different service specifications, and involving the citizen by getting them to think more clearly about what they want, may be an essential part of harnessing citizens' energy in order to improve public services.
In my view, the more that public-service policy makers focus on how to involve citizens in specifying, choosing and delivering public services, right from the beginning of the policy process, the better public services will be.
Most public services not only exist for the benefit of citizens, but depend for their success on involving citizens. Yet many public services have traditionally been planned as if their success was solely due to the energy of those delivering a service, rather than that of those receiving it.
The next step for many public services, one which some have already taken, is to take another leaf out of the private-sector book.
As companies have increasingly focused on customers' journeys and the experience customers go through during these journeys, they have realised that engaging and motivating customers, teaching them how to get better service and harnessing their energy and focusing it on what has come to be called co-production of services (in which the consumer plays an important part in successful delivery of a service) is critical to the success of a service.
We still have a long way to go before we can say that we fully harness the energy of citizens. The same is true of many private-sector companies' customer management, by the way.
How do we know that we still have a long way to go? Sadly, it is hard to prove. This is because of how we measure how citizens are managed by public services, though even phrasing it this way is rather prescriptive. We ask what services they want from us, we ask if they are satisfied with the services we deliver to them. We rarely ask them how they would like to contribute to increasing the effective and/or efficient delivery of services or, even more interestingly, how they might want to contribute to deciding what services should be delivered or to assisting in the delivery of services, or even to helping them avoid the need for certain services.
Of course, with the harnessing of energy comes the idea of rights and responsibilities. The responsibilities a citizen needs to consider if they are to be more closely involved might include:
- Being conscious of their own needs. We can help a citizen explore these needs.
- Being prepared to articulate their needs and to provide feedback
- To find out whether a particular service specification would meet their needs. Our obligation here is to help customers do this.
- To manage their relationship with the public service honestly.
- To adhere to commitments made beforehand, such as keeping to appointments, giving requested information.
So much for the theory – what about the practice? It's not hard to find many good examples of citizen energy being harnessed in public service design and/or delivery. Patients are being encouraged to take far more responsibility for their health. Neighbourhood-watch schemes have proliferated.
However, too often the question 'How can we harness citizens' energy?' is asked at the end of delivery planning, rather than at the beginning or as a fundamental change to the concept of how citizen and public service should work together. The tools and techniques of involvement have raced ahead, often involving the Internet:
- we now have airlines where customers effectively fill the planes, decide where to sit and manage their baggage.
- we have markets in which customers sell to each other and no longer require any significant intermediation.
- more importantly, we have business plans that are conceived by asking – and answering – the question 'How can we harness the energy of customers to help both us and our customers achieve what we both want?'.
The benefits of stronger and earlier inclusion of citizens (and their knowledge, energy and commitment) in the public-service policy process are clear:
- lower costs, as citizens become part of the delivery operation, and also perhaps decide not to take some services but do things themselves
- more satisfied citizens, because they are included more
- a more equal society, as the needs of all citizens are taken into account right down the line, not just through the minority or small majority who vote
- a safer society, as risks are identified by citizens as well
- stronger partnerships, as the many agencies which are close to citizens because of their role of delivering to citizens become channels of energy in all directions.