The past decade has given rise to tremendous experimentation in public sector service delivery. Integrated 311 call centres, single online windows and bundled and co-located services provided across a range of delivery channels, as well as the emergence of a citizen-centric ethos, are some of the contours of this important, new and constantly changing service landscape.
In embracing such experimentation, what have we learned? A new book, The Service State: Rhetoric, Reality & Promise, by me and three long-time colleagues – Patrice Dutil, Cosmo Howard and John Langford – dissects this broad question into a set of critical lines of inquiry and seeks to provide some answers. As one might expect from a group of academics, there is no definitive assessment, but rather a basis for better understanding the past and present, hopefully laying the groundwork for a more enlightened future.
One important lesson, and a starting point in the book, pertains to language. The slippery use of closely related labels such as customer, client and citizen mask important differences between them. To be a citizen in the public space implies a different relationship with service providers than is the case in the marketplace: responsibilities and obligations must co-exist with choice and rights.
Another core issue is measuring performance. While Canada has rightfully won plaudits from around the globe for pioneering Citizen’s First Surveys that gauge and benchmark public satisfaction, are such surveys methodologically robust and do they provide the entire story? In a citizen-centric governance world with a myriad of policy and service agendas at play, government’s role is undoubtedly more complex than providing satisfactory transactional encounters.
Shifting to customer service and citizen centricity further implies a profound cultural shift for government organizations providing service. Training and development, employee satisfaction, and the alignment between structural and cultural reforms are all crucial elements of more outward-oriented organizations nestled within the increasingly complex and collaborative service eco-systems emerging today.
At the heart of such eco-systems are new accountability arrangements both within governments and between government bodies and private sector partners. Sharing and parcelling accountability in this new and more collaborative world has proved a vexing challenge (as it shall undoubtedly continue to be).
Such a challenge also applies to relationships between levels of government as the logic of seamless governance arrangements for better and more integrated outcomes meets jurisdictional boundaries. Federalism, a political necessity that offers operational innovation and flexibility can also be a hindrance in this regard: service reforms are taking place in the absence of a supportive, more collaborative political architecture.
Such tensions both inside and outside of governments are likely to be accentuated during this century’s second decade of service reforms aptly depicted in the digital realm by the emergence of Web 2.0. Will there still be a role for a single, integrated government service window in an ever more open and dynamic environment shaped by social networking, mobile computing, and a relentless pursuit of convenience and choice in the marketplace?
In looking ahead to the new decade it is apparent that there will be enormous pressures on government to foster more modular and adaptive service apparatuses. Public servants may find themselves far less in control of strategizing and constructing platforms and channels than was the case previously.
Accordingly, engaging the public directly in service design (an important step beyond passively being satisfied) is now a stated aim of governments. Yet the implications and risks of such a commitment are poorly understood in terms of links between policy development and service delivery as well as the real potential for widening digital divides between those with new technologies and those without.
Public servants would be aided considerably by wider and more meaningful levels of political engagement between citizens and elected officials. Notwithstanding early interest in Connecting Canadians and Government Online initiatives, in recent years it has largely been left to government officials to progress incrementally. This has been nowhere more apparent than federally where the service reform and e-government agendas have found what can only be described as a stunning degree of ministerial ambivalence.
Our book does not offer any definitive blueprints for this next phase of service transformation, which is precisely the point. A wide and open dialogue is required across all stakeholders and the public at large. In preparing the groundwork for this critically important conversation, our more modest aim has been to better understand both the progress and problems to date, presenting this learning as a compass for tomorrow’s public servants destined to be called upon to navigate largely uncharted waters.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).