Citizens want to talk to politicians and policymakers to explain what they want and need, and to know that their government is listening and responding. Do governments, however, really want to listen and respond?
In Canada, at least, the answer seems to be yes.
In our Leadership in Customer Service research we found that citizens in most countries are highly critical of the extent to which government seeks their opinions. In 15 of 21 countries surveyed, less than a third of respondents thought their governments did a good job of seeking citizens’ opinions. Only in three countries – Canada, Singapore and Ireland – did more than half rate their government as “doing a good job in delivering a better quality of life for themselves and their families.”
Canadians were more likely to have positive attitudes about the job their governments are doing in building trust in seven of the eight areas we surveyed, including:
· government being accountable for what it achieves;
· informing citizens about policies and services;
· targeting resources to people who need them;
· providing equal access to government services for all citizens;
· seeking the opinions of its citizens;
· tailoring services to meet individual needs; and,
· delivering a better quality of life overall.
“Providing equal access to government services for all citizens” topped this list – 60 percent positive versus 20 percent negative – followed by “government delivering a better quality of life” – 53 percent positive, 21 percent negative.
The one area where Canadian citizens felt more negative (43 percent) than positive (36 percent) was on government openness and transparency in making policy decisions.
Participants told us that they want more opportunities to be involved in the process of setting government priorities, defining desired outcomes and planning public services that help improve their quality of life and their communities. They do not accept that politicians and civil servants can effectively shape public services simply on the basis of their own assumptions.
Four “enabling practices” facilitate the process, research shows.
1) Leverage insight into customers’ needs to improve equality of outcomes.
To achieve the balance between equality of outcomes and choice and flexibility of service delivery, public service providers should undertake detailed customer segmentation studies to understand their customer base better and use this understanding to inform all aspects of their services, including resource allocation, service design, channel strategy, and communications and engagement strategies.
For example, the Ministry of Labour and Citizens’ Services in British Columbia recently conducted extensive, needs-based segmentation research among its large and growing new immigrant population. It then worked with immigrant support organizations and community groups to develop the WelcomeBC.ca portal. It is organized by segment (temporary workers, international students, etc.) and according to specific needs (for instance, ChooseBC; Come to BC; Settle in BC; Enjoy BC; Diversity in BC; and Regions in BC) with services in several languages.
2) Engage citizens, service users and other stakeholders to define outcomes and design services.
The federal public service has taken steps to improve and enhance the level of citizen feedback and input. Its service charter outlines the government’s commitment to its citizens and describes the services offered to them. Nine service standards establish the level of service to be provided, as well as the protocol for an annual performance scoreboard.
The federal government has also created an Office of Client Satisfaction, a neutral and autonomous body that receives, reviews and implements suggestions. The government also conducts feedback studies including a Public Awareness Baseline Study, which examines the service delivery expectations of Canadians. In addition, the government conducts a Client Satisfaction Survey, which assesses satisfaction with services delivered.
3) Coordinate resources across and beyond government to deliver outcomes.
ServiceOntario was created in 2006 to give citizens and businesses an easier, more cost-effective way to access government services. It is a one-stop shop for services and information – everything from birth, marriage and death certificates to health card registrations and driver and vehicle licensing.
Coordination of resources is essential to ServiceOntario’s success. It provides unique and integrated services, enhanced by the migration of services from different parts of the government. Responsibilities were transferred, for instance, from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, which oversees ServiceOntario. The migration plan deliberately started with the highest-volume services first, moving on to lower-volume services over time.
The integration yields greater efficiency, but also provides opportunity for outreach and interaction. Now, customers who go in person or online to register a birth will also be asked if they wish to apply for a (federal) Social Insurance Number at the same time.
4) Focus on improving transparency and accessibility of information, so that customers can hold governments accountable, and provide mechanisms for public recourse.
Service Canada demonstrates its commitment to excellence through managing complaints via a highly transparent, three-step public recourse procedure. All their offices have client feedback cards (hardcopy and online) for compliments, recommendations, and complaints. The office manager is responsible to resolve issues, or bring it to a level at which it can be addressed.
Customers who feel that they are not getting redress at the local level can contact the Office for Client Satisfaction, which has a commitment to respond to all complaints within 24 hours and resolve them within seven working days. To date, both of these targets have been met 100 percent of the time.
Canada, more than most countries, puts these practices into action. As a result, citizens rate governments (federal, provincial/territorial, regional and municipal/local) as doing a better job of listening to citizens, fostering citizen engagement and, of course, actually delivering needed services.
Canadians are very involved citizens. Sixty-six percent of the Canadian respondents in our survey reported having participated in one or more political, local community or voluntary activities during the past year. Their spirit of societal contribution is an area of real opportunity for governments to build and take advantage of social ecosystems. These ecosystems will take on ever-greater importance, and the government should focus more attention on formalizing its relationships with groups outside the government sector to maintain its ability to deliver positive outcomes in the future.
Our research indicates that, in general, the Canadian government enjoys the confidence of its citizens. Continued focus on listening, promoting citizen engagement, harnessing all available resources and improving the availability of information will help governments maintain and strengthen this leadership position in citizen service.
Darren Nippard is managing director of public service in Canada for Accenture.