Any of you who have had the pleasure of working in Local Government for any length of time will no doubt have experienced the annual tradition of the customer initiative. This is the time of year when announcements come – usually from on high – about how we are going to “affirm our customers values” and “meet the needs of our customers”, usually woven in with some other words that wouldn’t be out of place in a game of Bullshit Bingo. If you’re lucky, you may get some customer service training or a half-day seminar chucked in for good measure.
This always amuses me greatly, because as the part-owner and partly operating my wife’s own business, I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what a customer is. And local government doesn’t serve customers.
Think about your last experience in a shop, or buying any service for that matter. You look around at the services on offer, check out the prices, even go to other stores if you want to. You then buy the service you are after, safe in the knowledge that you can return it if you don’t like it at no loss to you. You have no power over how the shop works, but if you really hated the service, you have the ultimate power of simply going elsewhere. That is the experience you expect as a customer.
But that is not the experience that anyone expects of, and gets, from local government. Now I know that local government likes to think it has many ‘customers’ but lets deal with the main group – local people. Local people are required by law to pay for services, many of which they may not use. They cannot go to another council to provide these services, short of actually moving to another area. They also have a say over council operations by electing representatives to deliver such services, but in a way that largely reflects the views of all ‘customers’ within a pre-defined boundary. Finally, whatever decision the authority makes, its customers live with the consequences of it, and don’t get a refund.
That is not the experience of a customer. That is the experience of a citizen. To treat a citizen as a customer is to try and apply a business approach to a situation that it really doesn’t apply to. The fundamentals of ‘customer’ service do apply to citizens – building a relationship, treating them with respect and in a professional and courteous manner. But as a way of doing business its not enough.
Citizens should expect their voices to be heard in the decision-making of the business (another term that is used far too often in the public sector). They demand to be engaged with its workings and decision making before decisions are even taken. They want advice from qualified professionals who care about their area. They want people to understand the impacts of decisions on their lives, impacts they may not be able to get away from. Finally, they expect their local council to care – and I mean really care – about them, people who are as proud of the area where they live as the council claims to be.
When I raise this, a common counter-argument made is that we are simply applying an ethos to our work. Now to be fair most local authorities still practice the sometimes dark art of engaging with its citizens (though even this is now called ‘Customer Engagement’), and many do it bloody well. And we should be providing our services in a way that our ‘customers’ want them to be delivered (Brighton and Hove’s ICE project is an excellent example of this). But I’m sorry, a simple customer service ethos doesn’t cut it. We – local government workers – are so much more than that. Besides, if you can’t do something as simple as understanding your ‘customers’, their issues, and offer your assistance in a professional manner in a way that suits them, you don’t deserve any job, whether public or private sector.
So the next time your Chief Executive or Leader talks about customer service, do a simple translation to citizen service and think about what that entails. Then you will understand what the customers of local government really want.