Citizens need a better connection to the Public Sector

Lonnie Donegan’s 1961 hit, My Old Man’s a Dustman, was a tuneful and colourful narrative as well as a homage to the worshipful company of refuse collectors everywhere. It had some truly memorable lines that included the following cheeky stanza.

Now one day whilst in a hurry he missed a ladies’ bin
he hadn’t gone but a few yards when she chased after him
“What game do you think you’re playing?” She cried straight from the heart
“you’ve missed me! am I too late?” Nah jump up on the cart!

Now while modern health and safety rules have put paid to that little romantic romp, my own experiences with the local bin men suggest that Lonnie Donegan’s dustman’s spirit is still alive and well, even with the ongoing challenges they face due to Covid-19.

My local team show up when they’re supposed to, don’t spill rubbish everywhere, are unerringly friendly and have a cheerful outlook on life that belies the external views and the internal “phews” of the job. And my guess is that they do this because they actually enjoy what they’re doing. But other experiences with public sector employees are often joyless, mind numbing, butt clenching, time wasting exercises in frustration and failure. But like many other service interactions in the private sector, it’s not necessarily the fault of the deliverer of the service. It’s the system that’s broken.

Trust Declines – Anger Rises
Recent political events on both sides of the Atlantic and the European mainland, have been reputationally damaging to governments and frustrating to citizens, whose trust in elected officials continues to fall off a cliff. The global pandemic and various government’s reactions to it, have also contributed to a serious decline in our confidence about our leaders’ judgment. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer that measures global trust in both public and private sector organizations, stated that, “Despite the divergence in trust between the informed public and mass population, the world is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them.”

The report notes that in the UK, “This year’s findings reveal a record trust gap between the informed and mass public, resulting in a Disunited Kingdom. Britons are angrier about politics and society since the Brexit referendum, and our research tells us that the country feels betrayed by politics and politicians, anxious we are travelling in the wrong direction and driven by a hunger for more fairness in society.”

Citizens don’t have a choice in their provider of public services and consequently are understandably sceptical about the sincerity and commitment of their local and central government bodies to keep the citizens best interest at heart. But it is in the interest and benefit of both parties to find some common ground, where services are provided to a consistently high level that meets or exceeds citizen’s expectations, by engaged and empowered employees, while keeping within budgetary constraints. Not an easy task, but neither is it impossible.

Time for a change?
Adobe and WPP’s Government & Public Sector Practice conducted research with more than 7,000 citizens in seven countries to understand what drives a positive experience of online public services.

  • The research suggests that, unsurprisingly, citizens expect online public services to be highly functional, efficient, and well-designed. More fundamentally however, they also want a positive citizen experience that comes from services tailored to their needs, and which promote a closer government- citizen relationship or dialog
  • The majority of respondents believe that they currently receive inconsistent levels of service from government online services, and this leads to a loss of trust in the ability of governments to meet their needs
  • Participants in this research believe that government online services – across all seven countries – are at best ‘adequate’ at fully meeting the needs of citizens

Earlier I spoke about the broken system being at fault rather than the employee, and this isn’t just true in the public sector. What’s curious about both citizen and customer experience is that all of us, at one time or the other, are on the receiving end of customer services. And you’d think this would have an effect on our behaviour when we put on our customer service hats and put up the “open for business” sign. Most of us naturally want to help others and come pre-wired with an attitude and a caring side that is ideally suited to achieving that objective. But often organizations want to actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions from creeping into their employees’ actions, which they want to control under the heading of “policies and procedures.” Many of which are irrelevant, dumb, arcane and were developed in a dark room in 1960 for the benefit of the organisation not the customer or citizen. As with the private sector, some governments continue to design and deliver services based on their own requirements and processes instead of the needs of the people they serve.

But is digital the answer?
Many articles on citizen experience that I read suggest that “digital’s the answer, now what was the question?” It’s clear that the easier and quicker we can make it, the better for all stakeholders. And digital can clearly do that. But as with customer experience this isn’t the natural starting point for the great leap forward for citizen experience. More frequent employee engagement that leads to a better understanding of the underlying issues that drive citizens and public sector employees crazy, is a much more fertile, if occasionally bumpy field, to start to plough and sow. But the resulting harvest will be plentiful.

Not just smart but responsive
We hear much about “smart cities” and while the concept has much to commend it in terms of developing digital strategies, it alone won’t drive a more collaborative environment. One example of a city that has really engaged with its citizens is Toronto, where I spent more than half of my life. As Rob Meikle, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the city says, “instead of just being a ‘smart city,’ we should aim to be a ‘responsive city’ as well. Being responsive is about being data-rich and having the ability to use that data for insightful analysis that allows us to respond to city-wide challenges more intelligently and inclusively.”

But connecting the data and the citizens isn’t as simple as putting everything online. What if you don’t have access to digital services, whether based on a fundamental understanding of online services, or access to the tools necessary for connectivity? However, interacting with citizens through traditional channels, allows cities to measure the extent of their digital gap and provide solutions, as is in Toronto, where their public libraries offer free Internet access to every citizen. This initiative kicked off in 2018 with Digital Literacy Day offering support to those without web access at home and scheduled events targeted at all ages and skill levels that took place across the city. In 2019 it grew into Digital Literacy Week which is a collaboration between the City of Toronto, the Toronto Public Library, and an innovative and digitally inclusive group of thirty-five local organizations who shared new and valuable practices with regard to policies, programs, monitoring and evaluation.

Not just Engaging but Involving

While initiatives such as this will undoubtedly take some time to gain broad acceptance, it’s a crucial step for cities seeking to use innovation to involve its citizens. I’ve rarely been asked for any feedback on my views as a citizen either locally or nationally and have to seek it out myself if I want my voice heard.  Even when there are surveys available, they are at best only annual or very infrequent. Instead of seeking feedback only once, organizations should seek feedback from citizens at every decision stage or touchpoint. In doing so, cities can be sure they are making decisions their citizens will engage with, and at the right time. By engaging frequently with their citizens, officials can discover how people and companies feel about various service programs and ensure that they meet the needs of the people that they are designed to support.

Behavioural change on both sides is a vital element to success

But it’s not just the cities or other public sector organisations that have to change. We all have a role to play. The establishment of a strategic and tactical citizen connection road map that actively engages citizens and provides frequent interactions with their local, regional, and central governments is a vital first step in meeting the challenges of finding common ground.

As the various Brexit demonstrations in the UK have shown us, there is no lack of passion for citizen involvement. And, while that clearly has very confrontational elements, improving public sector services is something that we should all be able to agree and champion. The importance and difference between conversation and confrontation in addressing sensitive issues is a critical element in starting this dialog and ensuring that collaboration and co-creation can flourish. The good news is that there is evidence from various political campaigns that more people, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are keen to help and are prepared to step up and engage in dialog. This was corroborated in a recent article in Atlantic Magazine that stated, “One measure of the younger generation’s passion for making positive change is reflected in the extraordinary success of We Day, a set of programs celebrating and inspiring youth to make a difference in local and global communities. Founded by Toronto-based social activist brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, We Day—along with associated brands Me to We and Free the Children—is dedicated to the proposition that young people must be taken seriously as a potent source of positive change.”

While social media has its share of critics, it can be a force for good for government organisations to further engage people by collecting and analysing experiences and feedback and ideally reacting with the immediacy that it supports. This will reflect positively in their intentions to engage in dialog and create advocacy that can be turned into actions that can be part of a much-needed initiative to rebuild trust and gain long term support from a broader audience.

When Lonnie Donegan’s song was a hit in 1961, Twitter was just the sound that birds made. But, if it happened now, what better advocacy could there be for public sector goodwill than a viral video about a potential dust bin romance and a bin lorry “road trip!”

I’m sure we could all jump on that bandwagon.