“The public sector is, collectively, the world’s largest service provider. Any incremental improvement in public services positively impacts millions of people. The first step to ‘delivering the customer promise’ is to know your customers and their needs”—Wim Oosterom.
The quote above, taken from Wim Oosterom – a former Global Sector Manager at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), a multinational professional services network—underscores three salient points regarding the nature of public service. First, it defines the public sector as it should be: as a service provider. Secondly, Oosterom accentuates the underlining multiplier effects associated with “any” improvements in how the public sector operates. And, lastly, he alludes to the need for the “largest service provider” to know its customers and their needs if there’s any hope of achieving excellent customer service status.
Acknowledging the public sector as the largest service provider also means accepting the fact that at the heart of any public- (or private-) sector service provision there’s one constant—people, a factor that easily brings the intricacies of achieving service excellence and the “customer promise” to the fore. Said differently, one cannot expect public sector to meet the standards of service that government is required to provide to its customers (i.e. meet the ‘customer promise’) without actively engaging the service providers at all levels. However, the very scale of the “largest service provider’s” customer “interactions” reveals the daunting nature of any attempts at public sector customer service improvements.
In a 2007 paper, Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Public Sector Research Centre (PSRC) had framed the issue this way: “More important than choosing the appropriate model for public service delivery, or increasing awareness around the realization of benefits for citizens, is the task of undertaking the actual transformation. One of the biggest challenges demanding attention is the ‘ambition challenge’— attempting to achieve more than is believed possible, given the constraints of structure, capacity of people, public sector culture and finances” (PSRC, 2007, p. 61).
Managing the ‘Ambition Challenge’
The quadripartite constraints (structure, capacity, culture, and finances) as highlighted by the Public Sector Research Centre simultaneously speaks to an inherent truth that any attempt to improve public-sector service delivery will encounter: there is no ‘one-size-fit-all’ approach, given that constraints themselves may vary from country to country, and even across local government agencies. More specifically, while one government agency’s limitations may revolve around capacity, another agency’s dominant constraint may be rooted in finance.
To this end, PSRC (2007) stressed the fact that there is “no single ‘correct’ approach for undertaking the transformation of public sector service delivery. Although there are a number of common trends, as well as a number of common challenges faced by public sector organizations around the world, the response will vary depending on individual contexts”.
Belize Public Service in Context
Given the ‘uniqueness’ of the variables outlined above, the question has to be asked: “what approach, then, would be best for Belize’s public sector?” One pioneering approach is the Ministry of the Public Service, Energy and Public Utilities (The Ministry)’s recent announcement of an inter-government-agency “Service Excellence Competition”, in which any government ministry and/or department can submit service-improvement initiatives that are to be implemented between February and June this year.
As outlined its release this week, The Ministry intends for the competition to engender a “renewed Belize Public Service that places the citizens at the center of service delivery and where customer satisfaction truly becomes the hallmark of the Belize Public Service.”
According to The Ministry’s release, the government bodies’ submissions shall be judged on five primary criteria: (i) whether or not the service improvement initiatives are cost effective and easily implementable; (ii) if the measures proposed engage staff participation all levels of any given government body; (iii) if the actions result in measurable improvements to customer satisfaction; (iv) whether or not the steps taken improve staff morale; and (v) whether or not the initiatives implemented can continue beyond the life of the competition.
Why the Criteria?
As was stated earlier, recognizing the public sector as a service provider means acknowledging the function of the people who make up the organizations. This understanding is clearly referenced in The Ministry’s stated criteria geared towards comprehensive staff participation and improvement staff morale.
Continuing on the motif of “managing the ‘Ambition Challenge’”, the focus on the implementation of measures that are ‘cost effective’ and ‘easily implementable’ speaks directly to the age-old adage of not putting “one’s hat too far above his head”. That is, it forces the government bodies to assess their relevant constraints (i.e. structural, capacity-based, cultural, and financial), and do those things that are within said agency’s reach. A useful feature of this criterion is that it helps to distinguish between those measures that are implementable at the “ground level” and those that require more intricate policy and legislative changes.
Criteria numbers three and five are also pivotal. The former addresses the inherent goal of achieving measurable improvements to service delivery and customer satisfaction; while the fifth criterion underscores the need for long-term solutions.
Different paths, common goals
The contest-based incentive for agencies’ to reassess their service delivery speaks directly to what the Public Sector Research Centre (2007) had pointed out: “there is no single ‘correct’ approach for undertaking the transformation of public sector service delivery”. This fact is true for individual government bodies, and the competition allows for each agency to identify their specific structural, capacity-based, cultural and financial constraints and think of innovative ways to address them.
Nevertheless, beyond the distinctive solutions that are likely to emerge, as PSRC (2007) had emphasized, there are some common priorities that any public sector wishing to improve customer satisfaction should pursue. First, there is the need to understand that the ‘customer is king’ in the public sector too; second, is the need for agency ‘silos’ to be done away with, so as to make way for a more connected public service provider. There is also the need to build capacity; build customer-centric models; and lastly, ensure continuous innovation by encouraging regular ‘customer’ feedback.
Beyond a glance
With all the above in tow, as one takes a more extended look at the dynamics of the constraints of the public sector bodies, and the need to manage the ‘ambition challenge’ by setting SMART objectives, it becomes evident that the competition is a first small step towards a significant goal of improving the operations of the largest service provider in Belize—the public sector.
And, if we return, for example, to the Ministry’s stated goal of placing “citizens at the center of service delivery”, it becomes conspicuous that the competition is rooted in the ‘customer is king’ across-the-board first principle promulgated by the Public Sector Research Centre.