Finding a halfway house: Can we design public services better?

Hello there again,

Apologies for the long interlude, work travel and projects have been keeping me very busy and stimulated indeed. But with an extra day off work in the bag, it is time to give back to the blogging community and write up a post I’ve been pondering for quite a while now.

There are many drivers behind my desire to write about service design and public sector reform. First is my recent attendance to the Global Service Jam in Canberra and the announcement that a GovJam is taking place in June. Exciting stuff. Second, and perhaps a bit more unexpected, is my recent acquisition of the full ‘A bit of Fry and Laurie’ box set. The link between the two may be tenuous to you, but there’s a chance I can shed some light on how both Fry and Laurie have developed a very pertinent critique of the public sector’s inability to rethink business models and income streams without falling back on privatisation, as if it were completely unthinkable that the public (and let me throw the not-for-profit sector in there) would be able to think financially sustainably.

I start this post by sharing a sketch from ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie”s pilot episode, when Hugh Laurie rushes into a police station to report the theft of his own car. Fry meets him with the best customer service you’ll ever encounter in a police station and offers him a number of ‘packages’ for Laurie to purchase, which would allow a recently privatised police force to open an investigation for the lost vehicle. It’s understandable that Fry and Laurie would have been interested and indeed keen to comment on the recent wave of privatisation that came under Maggie Thatcher’s government, but this clip, now 20 odd years old, still have enduring resonance in a context where government policy, strategy and services are being privatised or outsourced.

Let’s have a look at this great piece of humour. It’s a personal favourite.

As hilarious as it is, it is also a tad depressing that in many cases, privatisation has been the quickest, cheapest and most efficient way to improve or reform service delivery, taking the onus away from government to think strategically about its services and how best to deliver them and putting that responsibility in the hand of numerous contractors who have no direct accountability to the public.

I am not suggesting that all services should be delivered by government. There are clear limits to what the public sector can deliver which are clearly restricted by resources, and skills. In a recent conversation with one of my clients  (a public sector client) we debated the merits of making those constraints open and transparent to the customer/citizen so as to set realistic expectations and help the public prioritise initiatives delivered by local government. In many cases, there is still a gaping inconsistency between what the customer in us wants and what the citizen in us wants, an incoherence that makes it difficult for local government to remain realistic about what can be delivered and yet sell enough dream to be re-elected.

In the UK, there has been quite a bit of prototyping of open budget initiatives, whereby the customer/citizen can see exactly where the rates revenue is spent and why. The best example of this is Openly Local, an initiative to which many councils across the UK subscribe.

It’s often called ‘Open Government’ and is often presented like an opportunity for the public to get involved not only in budgeting, but in shaping policy. A very different task than asking the public ‘what they want’.  My limited experience has shown me that many consultation efforts go amiss due to the fact that either no debate, or the wrong debate is framed up in these kind of consultation forums. As Henry Ford said, if he’d listened to what people wanted, he would have made faster horses, not cars!

So there is a lot to be said here about the ability to shape the right conversation and a conversation that will get the right level of resolution for the public sector to go away and design services that respond to specific needs. In New South Wales, local government is bound by the State Government to use community consultation and community strategic plans as the blueprint for policy and service delivery, meaning that a badly shaped conversation can yield to much more than funds wastage. It can have perennial consequences on what local government thinks it should be pursuing and how that will go unquestioned until the next election.

This brings me to my main argument: surely there are ways of using simple service design methodologies within the public sector to understand business models, income streams, customer interfaces, customer journey maps and value for money principles before giving up and pawning the whole thing off to the private sector. My recent experience with clients that run either public sector services or not-for-profit services fall in the trap of not focusing on the user, but rather on themselves, as the team delivering a given service. This fundamental miscategorisation of who the service is for leads to loss of patronage, decreased relevance and tighter subsidies, as the value for the user/customer cannot be demonstrated in a model where the delivery team, not the user, is being put at the centre of the service design. And often this means very long gaps between service delivery and evaluation, sluggish responses to feedback, and a lack of general responsiveness to the needs of users.

This is especially true in sectors that are experiencing the major impacts of technological shifts through digital connectivity and the social networks. Change is occurring  at a much faster rate that ever before and keeping abreast of these changes and leveraging them to deliver better ‘post-digital’ services, would require a responsive, private sector-like adaptability, where a service lives and dies by its ability to respond to shifting needs.

To a large extent, the aged care sector is suffering from this at the moment in Australia. I’ve already written about this in a previous post, have a look at how bad market design can lead to absurd consequences.

This idea that public services are designed and delivered completely divorced from an understanding of what customers need or find convenient has come to life again with my most recent dealings with Australia Post. As you all know, I was not inclined to appreciate their customer service after the parcel delivery fiasco I wrote about a couple of months ago but the recent debacle with them (which only concluded this morning) takes this to a completely new level.

As I returned back from Canberra and the Service Jam, I made it home to discover that I had forgotten my glasses at the hotel. The hotel owner was very helpful and offered to send them through to me using a ‘Cash on Delivery’ option, which makes sense. Why should he foot the bill for my forgetfulness? All good up to here.

Learning from past experience, I had opted to have the parcel delivered at my workplace, given I was not feeling in the mood for another wild goose chase. I get a collection ticket in an envelope, sent to me straight from the post office but with two crucial bits of information conveniently missing: a valid phone number and an address for pick up. You’d think that was part and parcel (no pun intended) of the pick up service, but think again.

So I end up having to call the toll free number and speak to a customer service rep who tells me that they are unable to locate the item and that they’ll have to open an investigation. When I ask whether she could give me a call when and if the item has been located, she kindly informs me of the fact that she is not allowed to ring me up, therefore I am going to have to continuously call up until they have news for me. Do I need to tell you how annoyed I was by this stage?

Next, I call back to find out whether my glasses have reappeared from the ether to find out that they are now officially lost and that Australia Post will compensate me to the tune of 100 dollars (thanks heaps for a $450 pair of glasses). The next day, I get another envelope from the post office, this time with a ‘final notice’ ticket and with a post office address where I can collect my item. Therefore, through my interactions with AusPost, my item was simultaneously lost and found. Gee, they’re good. You definitely get enough drama for your money!

On the plus side, having thought that I lost my glasses pushed me to consider purchasing new frames and led me to discover ‘Sneaking Duck‘, a really interesting and innovative online eyewear business that offers the convenience of a retail outlet (within Central Sydney) without having to pay their rent! Very affordable, very cool. My set of 5 frames should be coming through any day now!

But that’s for another post. Bye for now!

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