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Quality is in the Eye of the Customer

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
September 7, 2021

When developing and delivering services, it is important we keep the end in mind. An outcomes-based approach is more likely to be the most effective and efficient approach, ensuring all activities are narrowly aligned with the desired outcome. But how is the outcome defined? Who decides if the services are of high quality? In any public sector setting, quality is and should be in the eye of customers (the community)—the end users of our services.

David Garvin of the Harvard Business School identified eight dimensions of quality in 1987, providing a framework for how we might understand quality. His work suggests quality is an intangible, mutable characteristic dependent upon specific perspectives of a single service, meaning each dimension might be interpreted and weighted differently for each service. He proposed eight dimensional perspectives for perceiving quality.

  1. Performance: The primary characteristics of a service (what people want from it).
  2. Features: The secondary characteristics of a service, which might be unintentional, but which might delight the customer.
  3. Reliability: Perceptions regarding whether the service will fail when needed.
  4. Conformance: How well does the service meet or exceed established standards?
  5. Durability: How long will the effects of the service last?
  6. Serviceability: If needed, can systems maintenance and performance remedies be completed quickly, easily and in a cost-effective manner?
  7. Aesthetics: How well does the service reflect the personal preferences of the customer?
  8. Perceived Quality: These are indirect measures of service quality, which may or may not be accurate, where an organization’s reputation affects customer perceptions of quality. This might be affected by factors beyond the control of the agency, especially when dealing with the cross-functional services often found in the modern public sector environment.

When considering quality, Garvin and others stressed the need to consider the voice of the customer. We must first identify the needs and expectations of the community, then try to fulfill them in an effective, efficient and responsive manner. The challenge has frequently been the internal focus of many organizational cultures, tending to view service delivery predominantly in terms of what they wished to provide and how and when they wished to provide it. This “build it and they will come” mentality does not spring forth from any malintent, but instead from the technical focus developed in any discipline during education, training and acculturation towards a specific field. The mindset has been to push services out, when instead it should be finding a way to have the services pulled from us.

The concept of having services pulled from us by the customers should not be interpreted negatively as if some form of conflict exists. It simply means providing the services the customers (the community) desire. Many organizations approach this in a reactive manner, reflecting primarily on internal activity reporting or unsolicited customer feedback, often coming in the form of complaints. Ideally, we should reach out to our communities proactively through surveys, interviews, questionnaires and any other avenue which lets us know what they want from their public service agencies.

We should be exploring these community expectations through the eight dimensions of quality. This will differ from agency to agency and from service-to-service. Let us consider an example from public works. People want roads for transportation (performance). The roads should be built to existing standards in terms of materials, width and other factors (conformance). They want them to be in good condition, lasting for years, providing for functional transportation routes (reliability and durability). They expect roads will be maintained and this will be completed in a timely and inexpensive manner (serviceability). For larger roadways or highways, there is often a desire for greenspace and cleanliness (aesthetics). For interstate routes, there may be a desire for scenic vistas (features). Regardless of how well other elements of quality are addressed, rampant unattended potholes, litter and reckless drivers may raise concerns about the integrity or competence of the agency, even though litter control and reckless driving are often beyond the realm of public works (perceived quality).

As public servants, we wish to provide services which are valuable and valued by the public; valuable in that the public sees their worth and valued in that the public wishes to avail themselves of these services. In the film comedy Roxanne, the Fire Chief states his dream is that in an emergency, calling the fire department would be wise. “You can’t have people when their houses are burning down, saying “Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department! That would be bad!” Farcical though it might be, it is an important message. We must find ways to deliver the service quality the community desires or we fail in our professional responsibilities.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD is independent scholar and Leadership-Management Consultant. focusing on leadership development in the public sector. He served in local government for over thirty years and as full-time faculty in public administration-related programs for more than ten. He served two terms as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. He may be reached at [email protected]

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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.

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