A short 18 months ago, the Ontario Public Service made its Service Directive mandatory for all ministries. The directive articulates and reinforces government’s vision of providing accessible and consistently high service quality to all internal and external OPS clients.
The OPS has long been involved in taking a systematic approach to improving service quality. In fact, back in 1998 Ontario was a sponsor of the first “Citizens First” study produced by the Institute for Citizen-Centered Service. The OPS leveraged that study on client service expectations to develop its common service standards for in-person, telephone and mail service delivery channels.
The present service directive reinforces the requirement to meet the common service standards and, in a groundbreaking innovation, extends them to program-specific service standards. It also elevates OPS transparency and accountability through its requirement for public reporting on the achievement of these standards.
Launching the directive was not straightforward. Ministries were at different stages of readiness to develop service standards. A few were running ahead of the pack but the majority were moving along at various levels and paces, through any number of approaches.
As ministries engaged, it didn’t take long to see that there was an appetite for this kind of initiative. It triggered a deeper reflection on who our clients are, how to engage them in dialogue and how to best meet their expectations as effectively and efficiently as possible. As answers to these questions crystallized, it underpinned a momentum that, 18 months later, is significantly deepening the OPS client-centric service culture.
Although programs vary in their service offerings from transactional to social entitlement, to regulatory enforcement services, some common challenges to building a client-centric service culture emerged, along with strategies to overcome them:
“We don’t see clients everyday so we don’t really provide public services.” Not all managers and staff recognized their roles in the provision of public services. While service delivery was obvious to some, such as front counter staff and park wardens, others like procurement, IT and policy staff had difficulty developing a “line of sight” to the end client. Focus groups and open discussions help establish this line of sight and target group-specific “we are all service providers” communication strategies help overcome such perceptions.
“Trust us, we know what’s best for you.” In the past, ministries often set service standards in-house and then “educated” the public on what they were and how they worked. There was reluctance to engage clients in the standards development process. And even when they were willing, staff lacked the skills and guidance on how to do so. The directive purposefully encouraged more (and better) client satisfaction surveying and actively supported ministries in translating data into useful insight, informing action.
“We can’t make service promises if we don’t have the ability to deliver.” Although the directive requires that all ministries communicate service standards to their clients, many were unsure of how to so. A Service Excellence Community of Practice was set up as part of the overall strategy and became an instrumental forum for discussing communications challenges and sharing solutions. Many ministries now post service standards on their websites, not only for public accountability, but also as a matter of employee pride in the services they deliver.
“Public reporting requires resources we don’t have.” All ministries are required to communicate their service standards, monitor and report the actual service quality achieved. At first ministries were cautious, typically citing a lack of resources to implement monitoring and reporting measures. Ministries were provided with a comprehensive set of tools including guidelines and best practices as well as training and advisory services to help “fulfill” these responsibilities. This increased the confidence of ministries, allowing them to post service standards and commitments on their public and internal websites.
As of June 2011, 1,727 internal and 826 external service standards have been developed for 551 program areas. Performance has been measured for 719 of these and reported to clients for 29 percent of them.
Our experience taught us that there are two parts of the puzzle when attempting to transform service culture. One, the tangible organizational part, is the planning of the “mechanics” of the initiative – defining standards, measurement schedules and communicating results.
The intangible “cultural” side is “winning the hearts and minds” of staff so that they not only understand the nature of client-centric service but own and model it as an integral part of they way we all think and work. Without this foundation the directive would be just another bureaucratic fad rather than the transformative catalyst of organizational culture it has in fact become.
Nicholas Prychodko is manager and Kalim Shah is senior advisor in the Centre for Employee Engagement & Client Satisfaction at the Centre for Organizational Excellence, HROntario, Ministry of Government Services (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com).