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Jan 25 2017

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Are you being served? Why government service standards matter

January 25, 2017 | By

Governments are facing a crisis of public confidence across the western world. It’s a crisis that played an important role in political upheavals over the last year. This is a big challenge, and we should think big in response. But in winning back trust, governments can also start (very) small.

In its 2015 election platform, the federal government promised to introduce new performance standards for public services. Performance standards are about as unsexy a policy area as there is, and thus easily overlooked. But done right, service standards can add up to transformative change in service delivery; and making service delivery better can have a broad impact on trust in government.

The idea of service standards, and of importing private sector customer service approaches into the public sector, is not new. We all agree that public service delivery should at least be no worse than customer service standards in the private sector. And some governments have taken big strides with simple, common sense changes – like Ontario’s recent bundling of four separate registrations into a single process to register a newborn, or money-back guarantees for the delivery of birth certificates.

And yet, we still occasionally encounter shocking customer service from our governments.

For example:

These are vital services. They matter more to us than the customer services we receive from the private sector, so the delivery of public services really ought to exceed private sector standards. Too often it doesn’t, and we should change that.

Service standards are an important starting point.

Transparency is critical. Naming and shaming are key motivating impulses. Results need to be public, but also accessible – not buried deep on a website somewhere where they are unlikely to attract any attention.

Governments set service standards to create accountability for how well they are delivering services. Standards can focus on timeliness commitments, or accuracy, or accessibility in customer service. Some of the key characteristics of good service standards include:

  • Standards should reflect the interests and priorities of citizens (the clients). So setting standards means consulting with the public.
  • Whenever possible, standards need to be measurable. Vague or subjective kinds of evaluation give governments the freedom to generously self-evaluate. Meaningful standards must be based on valid, objective benchmarks.
  • There should be consistency across government (though different standards may be more or less important for different services).
  • As with all goal setting, performance standards should be ambitious, but attainable, or they aren’t meaningful.
  • Standards should be dynamic. Changes in technological capabilities, or public expectations, or the service offering itself can change what we regard as important, or what standard we can reasonably achieve. So standards can become anachronistic fast, and governments should be prepared to update them quickly.
  • Above all else, it is essential that governments are transparent about what the standards are, and how they are doing at meeting them. Standards aren’t meant to live in bureaucratic back offices. They should give citizens a public measurement tool to hold up against government performance.

Measurement is the first step in improving services. Simply quantifying, or keeping better track of performance data, or comparing against baselines can have an effect on performance. But it doesn’t appear to be enough. At this point, we know a fair bit about how to set service standards. The big remaining question is how to motivate governments to meet those standards.

Transparency is critical. Naming and shaming are key motivating impulses. Results need to be public, but also accessible – not buried deep on a website somewhere where they are unlikely to attract any attention. Governments have begun bringing service standard results from across ministries together in one place. Some have created various kinds of performance dashboards, where targets and results across government services are displayed on a user-friendly platform. These dashboards are designed with citizens in mind. The data is visualized, so that we can quickly identify what programs, departments, and services are consistently falling short.

Creating competition where it otherwise doesn’t exist, in the provision of public services, can be a force for better results. The dashboard approach can cultivate competition between programs and departments.

There might even be more substantive ways to incentivize better performance, with service standards as a guide. In some cases – such as where service delivery is contracted out to third parties – using performance-incentive funding can give service standards real teeth.

We should also design these kinds of incentives with behavioural science in mind. Mowat has done work on some of the challenges that arise in trying to get more serious about performance evaluation – such as resistance on the part of agencies to take measurement seriously, for fear that poor results will lead to budget cuts. Behavioural science suggests some strategies to overcome this concern– for example, by offering agencies evaluation funding which is clawed back if it is not used.

Of course, not everything that government does can be captured neatly in quantitative standards. There is always some risk that we’ll overreach, or create incentives to “juke the stats” (a nod to The Wire) – where services are distorted in order to produce better looking numbers. But the public sector is responsible for dozens of simple transactions with citizens, where this just isn’t a serious concern.

There’s nothing sexy about service standards. But delivering services to citizens is the hard, prosaic work of building an effective state. Research tells us that people see governments as legitimate when they believe they have received fair treatment and think processes work. In an era of skepticism, it’s important to get service delivery right in the spaces where citizens interact directly with government.

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