The myth of ‘customer service’ in the public sector

Posted on June 17, 2015

Recently, I had to renew my driver’s licence and car registration. Not long ago this process would have been about as pleasant as root canal therapy, with long queues, confusing forms and intimidating environments. But the online transaction was simple and straightforward, representing a quantum shift in customer service.

This emphasis on customer service is just one of the many practices that the public sector has adopted from the private sector in the past few decades. Many government agencies have created customer service charters, guarantees of service, consumer participation groups and other reforms to improve the customer experience. You can see examples of these at Transport for NSWService NSW and NSW Department of Education & Communities.

While there’s no doubt these changes have improved the perception and service delivery of these organisations, the term customer service is not applicable to all government activity. Agencies responsible for child protection, law enforcement, defence, foreign affairs, teaching, healthcare, economic management and many other tasks do not have to compete for business or deliver the kind of customer service seen in the private sector.

Even if they use the term ‘customer’, they are not referring to customers in the traditional sense, which implies an exchange of money for a good or service, a loyal relationship with the organisation and most importantly, a choice of service providers. In government, these factors are often not the case. They may apply the principles of good customer service, but their role is far more nuanced than organisations in the private sector and involves complex relationships with a broader range of people.

Achieving the right balance between public duty and customer service is important at every stage of the planning, delivery and evaluation of government services. Without this balance, staff can experience an identity crisis, where they start to question whether their primary role is to be good customer servants or good public servants!

The famous management theorist Henry Mintzberg once stated that he did not want his neighbour treated like a customer when he applied to the council for a DA. The council needs to consider factors beyond a one-on-one customer relationship, such as the impact on Henry and other residents, planning controls, heritage regulations and so on.

For those working in government, the challenge is to understand that we have multiple responsibilities: to the client or customer, the law, the public good and the institution of government itself. Nexus understands this complexity and is experienced working with public sector organisations to negotiate this complex terrain. Want to know more? Contact us today.