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Understanding Customers in the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Jacobson
February 13, 2015

As government continues to look for ways to innovate and meet public expectations, one often hears the refrain that we should be more like the private sector. While the uses of balanced scorecards, lean improvement and organizational performance management have their roots in private sector initiatives, these approaches have frequently been successfully modified to reflect public sector realities. Without getting into the philosophical aspects that separate the public and private sectors, the private sector concept of “customer” is one that is often used to make government more effective, efficient and customer oriented.

Ken Miller, author of We Don’t Make Widgets and Extreme Government Makeover, is one of the leading proponents for using and embracing customers as a public sector concept. Although many government customers are not able to choose their provider (when government is the monopoly service provider) or are not customers of choice (inmates for example), the use of a customer framework can have profound impacts on refocusing government programs on those we serve and the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Rather than primarily focus on the needs of the public writ large or numerous stakeholder groups (including internal ones such as public sector unions), using a customer lens allows program managers and staff to address what is needed by the direct recipient of their services. Customers in Miller’s lexicon also include internal customers, for example another program or agency that is the recipient of an interim product in a larger process. This focus on the immediate customer, rather than the public which might have a parallel as a shareholder in a company, allows one to focus on the process, the hand offs, and examine opportunities for process improvement.

However, how do we in the public sector better understand our customers? We often interact with customers on a daily basis. We process their paperwork, we encounter them at service counters and we field their complaints (and even a few kudos) via the phone. But we don’t typically or routinely ask them “How’s it going?” or “How can we do this better?” or “How was your experience interacting with your government today?”

Jacobson febNow think about your experiences as a customer with the private sector—restaurants, banks, hotels, shopping, commercial websites, airlines, even the cable company. I think it is fair to say that the customer experience varies widely within sectors and between companies. But one aspect of all of these businesses is the desire for customer feedback and insight. Sometimes, it is developed by your shopping patterns and history. Other times, it is developed through marketing focus groups to understand specific words that will make a product more alluring. And these days, it hard to escape the customer satisfaction survey.

I get surveys at Best Buy. Target. Eddie Bauer. EBay. Toys R Us. Even Jamba Juice. (OK, maybe you didn’t want to know all of my shopping habits). Almost every national chain wants your feedback. They all typically offer some incentive for participation, from a chance at a gift card to a buy-one-get-one free offer. Some of these surveys are printed on every receipt, some are randomly generated. On the phone, my credit card company and insurance company both ask, before the transaction has started, if I would participate in a customer survey after the service is provided.

Are they doing all of these surveys because it’s fun? Because they don’t have anything better to do at corporate headquarters? No. They are doing this type of customer research because it helps them understand who you are, what you want, what you like/dislike, what will help get you to come back.

What if government had this attitude? What if we thought we needed to deeply understand our customers and what would make getting a car tab, passport or death certificate better and easier? What if we sought customer feedback on how we deliver our services, ease of access and how they are treated by employees?

I think those of us in the private sector ought to do a better job at really understanding our customers. Everything from comment cards, to surveys and focus groups ought to be on the table. We should be appropriating the best of private sector customer research techniques from market research to brand awareness.

Measuring at the community level or via elections is not adequate to get us this type of customer data. If you are a typical county resident, you might only regularly encounter us when you ride the bus or go to one of our parks. While those encounters are important, they are not a true reflection of all of the services that the county provides or taxpayers fund. We need to measure the individuals who use the actual services. Public health clinics, developmental disability services and yes, even our jail.


Author: Michael Jacobson is the deputy director for Performance and Strategy for King County’s Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget. He was the primary author of Measuring Customer Satisfaction: Improving the Experience of King County’s Customers. He was the 2013 winner of the ASPA Center for Accountability and Performance’s Harry Hatry Distinguished Performance Measurement and Management Practice Award.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Understanding Customers in the Public Sector

  1. Robert L. Morrison Reply

    February 14, 2015 at 8:42 am

    Very good article. Fits wells into the WEB and other Management Information Systems to make it happen.

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