Features: October 17th, 2008

By Mike Rowe

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm 

Good service in the public sector is difficult to define, but you know when you get it. It is different to good service in the private sector because the answer may be ‘no’, yet the service may be excellent. The author looks at the barriers to good service and some of the practices that could be changed. He suggests that junior and middle managers should cultivate an outlook that fosters initiative.

Geoff Mulgan in ‘Towards good service’ in the PMPA Review’s March 2008 presents an argument for a greater focus on good service. Indeed, he argues that higher education institutions should be launching service centres to address the failings he identifies.

My initial response might be to suggest that, at the University of Liverpool, we have just that. On reflection, I might respond that we have the expertise and could readily refocus in the way Mulgan suggests, research and other grants permitting. These are the all too typical responses of higher education institutions to changing policy agendas and discourses. Leadership is one such agenda to which higher education institutions have responded, and clearly not to Mulgan’s approval.

Understanding good service>

On further reflection, however, there are some puzzling features in Mulgan’s piece, though any comments might acknowledge at least that he tackles a broad subject in a short article. However, what exactly is meant by service appears confused. It is misleading to talk of service in the public and private sectors in the same breath. It is confusing to dismiss the professional model of service of the past while, at the same time, holding up the family doctor and the classroom teacher as closest to his ideals. We have occasional glimpses of what Mulgan may see as the ideal. Referring to the work of Zuboff and Maxmin, he talks of ‘relationships of service and deep understanding’. But his analysis leaves these ideas untouched as he pursues the themes of feedback, innovation and the failings of higher education institutions. And it is in these arguments that the puzzle deepens.

The failings of markets and choices as feedback systems in public services are quite widely recognized. How to make ‘voice’ more powerful is a dilemma with which many have grappled in the past 40 years. But it is not simply a problem of channels for voices to be heard. The difficulty is that, in many services, the views of service users need to be balanced against both those of others and the perspectives of the providers. Furthermore, this is a dialogue that takes place in the context of legal and financial constraints—what can and cannot be done with the limited resources available. Service in this context might mean saying ‘no, you are wrong’, or ‘sorry, but someone else has a greater need for this than you’. Here we might refer back to those earlier ideas, relationships and understandings, but Mulgan does not.

Instead, innovation emerges as a further theme. This discussion appears to be framed as a matter of resources and investment. Perhaps there is a deeper connection here that has not come through in this piece, but innovation is a comparatively simple dimension of service improvement. The brief examples of good service Mulgan gives are of being smiled at or listened to. Where is the investment here? It is in staff, not in innovation.

Street-level providers

The main problem of service is precisely in those many small encounters, in whatever context, between public servants and the service users. Negotiating the competing demands of organizational performance, financial constraints and users’ needs requires staff who know what their purpose is, where they fit into a bigger picture of service and what other resources they might be able to use to achieve that purpose.
Rather than undertake more research into the experiences of users, we might start by enabling service providers to learn from and respond to their own experiences of the services they provide. This point might seem strange, maybe even controversial. Why would the experience of those providing poor service be the basis for useful learning?

In my experience, many service providers know that their service is poor and know why. Indeed, so conscious are they of their poor service, they are reluctant to consult users because they know the feedback will be critical, even aggressive. How many of us willingly expose ourselves to hostile environments? We can learn first from these public service providers why it is they provide services they know to be poor. What are the genuine barriers to good service and what are the organizational norms and practices that can be changed?

Raising standards

To raise the standard of service, we need to look at the way organizations configure themselves and the ways in which they set up obstacles and barriers to good service. Mulgan identifies some of these problems, but the responses he develops appear tangential to the issue. We need to identify and cultivate junior and middle managers who can show initiative. That is where higher education institutions might be part of the picture, developing reflective practitioners in an organizational setting, not simply in a classroom.
Mike Rowe is director of the Liverpool masters in public administration at the University of Liverpool His research interests include the relationship between providers and users in discretionary service contexts and between service agencies in urban regeneration partnerships.