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  Are Government Customers Really Customers?

With the increased popularity of Total Quality Management (TQM), and a focus on customer service, more government agencies are considering the users of their services as customers. But this brings up some interesting issues. For example:

In what sense is a drunk driver a customer? What does it mean to consider a business owner who must have his/her premises inspected, as a customer? Given the multiple roles of government, does it make sense to consider members of the public as customers? Is being a "government customer" the same as being a "private sector customer"?

Intuitively, people have the vague sense that the private sector and public sector differ, because the public sector has responsibilities and constraints that do not seem to be part of private sector organizations. So, the translation of TQM concepts to government is a bit more complicated.

In an article entitled "Real Customer Service in Government: Is It Possible?” (Executive's Digest) Ron Hikei, partner in the KPMG Centre of Government suggests that we may not be well served by considering the users of government service as customers. In this article (available in its entirety on the KPMG Internet site), Mr. Hikel makes the following points.

  1. Since users of government services don't usually have the choice of going elsewhere, treating them as customers may not convince them that we value them as customers. As Hikel puts it, "Standing before a Canada Customs inspector, you are in no sense a customer.”

  2. Private sector companies often gather information from customers to improve service. While government agencies also do so, Hikel states: "many public sector agencies have very sophisticated ways to filter out or mask bad news from customers; or they can't act on them.' Hikel suggests that this is not "just a matter of disinterest". He suggests that inaction also occurs because resolving the complaints of customers is often not in the power of civil servants, but can only be undertaken by senior officials or politicians.

  3. Hikel suggests that equating the concepts of citizen and customer does not take into account the responsibilities of citizenship, or the role of government. Customers have very few obligations, citizens do.

  4. Hikel suggests that we consider users as customers only in situations where the users have chosen to interact with you, or pay a fee, and are able to take action if they judge service levels as unsatisfactory. He goes on to say that "Calling them customers is also an invitation for them to treat government differently, more demandingly."

  5. The author suggests that simply referring to citizens as customers, without undertaking more encompassing structural changes to government, will be ineffective.

Counter Arguments

In an article published in The Bureaucrat Magazine (1992), Tom Glenn, an expert in quality and government looks at it another way. With respect to customer service he writes:
The notion of "customer" is as foreign to many of us bureaucrats as the idea of a bicycle is to a fish. We think of the customer as someone who buys something. In Total Quality Management, the word "customer" has taken on a new meaning: the beneficiary of our work.

Later, Glenn says, "When government becomes dysfunctional, bureaucrats being to look down on the customer as an ignorant nuisance.” Later, he suggests that we need to treat our users as customers because we don't have the luxury of turning away people, and sending them to a "competitor". As he succinctly states, "lour customers are always with us. One of the worst things we can do is turning them into enemies."

So, what's our position? We disagree with Hikel on many of his points. We think we should be thinking of citizens as customers, but that doesn't mean that our roles are the same ones that a Wat-Mart employee carries out, or a Zeller's employee. That said there are many similarities between the two contexts.

What Hikel does not seem to address is the idea that government staff AND private sector staff both work under constraints. The government worker must abide by, and enforce any laws, regulations and policies created by people he/she has never seen. But so does the Wal-Mart employee. Just try to return a product to a private sector company and demand that you receive a refund ten times the original price you paid. The customer, in this case, is not always right. Both government and private sector organizations limit the power of staff to meet the customer's needs.

Similarly, both private and public sector "customers" have obligations, albeit not always the same ones. If you wish to insure your house with a private insurance company, either you fulfill your obligations, or you will not be insured. You need to complete forms, and fulfill other conditions, just as you would with government. Or, if you make an appointment to get your car fixed, and arrive one hour late, you will lose your place in line. This is no different in government. Customers in both sectors have obligations.

On the issue of choice, however, Hikel's comments do suggest a difference between the two sectors. Often government service consumers can't go next door to receive the service. Does this mean we shouldn't treat them as customers? In fact, Hikel doesn't acknowledge the fact that while government "customers" can't always go to a different "company" if they are unhappy, they can indeed take action, and choose to act on their dissatisfaction. They can (and often do) register complaints to managers, or executives, or even the politicians responsible for the offending organization. They can (and do) harangue and sometimes harass employees. They can (and do) go to the media with their concerns.

These are all choices shared by customers in both private and public sectors. Customer dissatisfaction can result in very concrete actions taken by the customer. And, of course, the government organization suffers, in terms of time, and in terms of lost prestige. These actions have an economic impact upon government. In short, irate customers cost both private and public sector organizations a good deal of money, even if customers may not be able to take his/her business elsewhere.

When Hikel suggests that calling our users customers is an invitation for them to treat government differently, more demandingly, we get confused. Anyone who has worked in government in the last decade or so will realize that they already are demanding. This change in the public's expectations regarding government isn't occurring as a result of calling them is exactly the reverse. The reason many governments are moving to more of a customer orientation is because of the pressure placed on them from the public, and a realization that we have, for too long, encouraged the notion that government bureaucracies are self-serving and uncaring.

We believe that members of the public should indeed be treated as valued customers, even in situations where they are subject to regulatory or law enforcement control. The notion of "customers" suggests that they are important enough to not be considered as nuisances, but are the focus of our organizational existence. In addition, government organizations, focusing on customer satisfaction, can reduce the cost of poor customer service, in terms of redoing work, and handling complaints. Even where a government employee can't change the laws or policies, there is considerable benefit to treating the "customer" in a polite, helpful and respectful way.

Hikel suggests that if we want to treat government users as true customers, we must restructure our organizations to operate in this new way. On this point, there is considerable evidence to suggest that TQM and customer service improvements succeed when there is a willingness to address the larger organizational issues, rather than simply telling staff to treat people like customers. That said we believe that there is still considerable benefit to doing what is immediately possible, rather than waiting until we can have the "whole ball of wax".

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