There’s a lot of debate in the public sector about whether it’s ‘appropriate’ to adopt management techniques from the private sector. For five and a half years I encouraged various government agencies to adopt what I thought of as a ‘marketing orientation’.
What I meant by that was: try to behave as though you care about what your customers think.
The relationship with the customer is possibly the most fundamental difference between the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
In the private sector customers = revenue. We compete to acquire them, we compete to hang on to them. Customers have choices. We want them to choose us. We can never have enough customers.
In the not-for-profit sector customers are important for a different reason. NFP customers don’t really want to be customers – they would rather not have the disability, or the poverty, or the infirmity, or the lack of resources that qualifies them to be customers – but, even though they may dislike their situation, they ultimately choose the services and the support they receive. Often the organisation was created to cater for an identified need in the community. People who work in NFPs tend to be very focused on the needs of their clients. Often the funding model of the organisation is based around the number of people they help and/or the level of need of those people so, once again, customers = revenue.
This brings its own set of problems. For example, let’s say we start an NFP organisation with a vision to eliminate poverty. If we ever succeed, we lose our reason to exist and we go out of business. That’s a pretty strong incentive to not succeed. But that’s a subject for another day…
In the public sector it’s a different story. Usually the agency has at least some elements of a monopoly. In many cases the customers don’t really want to be customers, but they have no choice. For example, hands up who wants to be a customer of the tax office? Who wants to be a customer of the police? Do you really want to have to go to a government office to buy a drivers licence? Not really, but you don’t have a choice.
So the relationship with the customer is often coercive. Many government staff struggle to even think of their customers as customers. In many cases the customers seem a bit annoying, because they seem to suck up time and resources the organisation could be using to do something else. The people in the organisation might think they would be happier if they had less customers.
This attitude often shows. We all have examples of growing old waiting in a queue in an office or on a phone, for a government officer to give us appallingly bad service. We’ve all heard government staff complain that they would like to give us better service if the organisation had better funding. We all know that’s not true, because the private sector finds ways to deliver better service for less money, because otherwise they die.
I’m not suggesting the competitive market always delivers a better result. There are lots of reasons why that’s not always true. I’m suggesting it more as a thought experiment: if you’re a public servant, imagine what it would be like if your customers could choose to go somewhere else. Imagine what it would be like to have competitors. Or, just think about the last time you had to deal with another government department…