Are you sitting comfortably?

What does service mean in a public service? How do we know how good it should be, and how do we know whether that is good enough in principle or in practice?

That shouldn’t on the face of it be too hard to work out, but the answer is often more elusive than it first appears. Here for example are some easy questions. How comfortable should the chairs be in a jobcentre? Should they be more or less comfortable than chairs in GP surgeries? And, critically, how do we know whether any suggested answer is the right answer?

simple chair against neutral background

In a recent blog post, Lauren Currie reports a much more challenging and more charged version of the same question:

She believes we deserve beauty in all areas of life. Why isn’t the doctors surgery as nice as a hair salon? I believe the same ‘levels of service’ are deserved in in all areas of life. Why does dining in my local restaurant make me smile and always deliver yet the national health service make me feel stupid and fail to understand my needs?

Perhaps then these are not such easy questions after all.

One set of answers is all to do with choices: there are choices about what to spend on public services, on which services, and on how to distribute money within services. Making such choices is at the heart of what politics is about, and the reason that politics is hard has a lot to do with the relative nature of those choices, as I have argued before. But pretty obviously, that’s only one dimension of the problem. It may be part of the explanation of why hair salons are more congenial places than doctors’ surgeries, but it tells us less about why patients may feel unrecognised and misunderstood by the health service.

Another set of answers is about choice in a different sense. I have more choice about where to get my hair cut than about which GPs surgery to visit. And I have more choice about who I want as my GP than about which jobcentre to go to. Other things being equal, the success of hairdressers depends on more on their ability to attract customers than does the success of GPs, and the success of jobcentres depends on it not at all. But that too ends up being too simplistic: there are still grumpy hairdressers, and there is no shortage of examples of public service delivered with passion and humanity.

There is a third set of answers which at first sight look like no answer at all. Service is what we collectively expect it to be. I don’t mean by that what we individually want it to be: there is no magic force which tweaks a service to our precise desires as we walk through the door, as we all know all too well. But our expectations of what constitutes service and how it should be experienced shift in ways we don’t always notice. Self-service supermarkets and automatic ticket gates at stations each once needed careful explanation in ways which now seen faintly ludicrous. Those service expectations change over time in less obvious ways as well. The way jobcentres (and their predecessors) look have unintended but not accidental parallels with changes in other organisations.

Thirty years ago, both banks and benefit offices put strong physical barriers between staff and those whom they were serving and (albeit in different ways) stressed formality and seriousness over humanity and interaction.

Twenty years ago, banks started to move away from that model – counters were pushed more to the edge, screens got smaller and then often vanished altogether. The differences between front office and back office started to soften, partly because much of the pure back office work was moved elsewhere. Potted plants got larger and and became more important features of the environment

Ten years ago, benefit offices started to move away from that model. All the same things happened, up to and including the recalibration of the significance of potted plants. Some of the immediate reasons for that were very different – though others were very much the same.

My assertion, though, for which I am not aware of the existemce of any evidence, is that somewhere under the surface of many of those design decisions was a set of expectations that emerged from, were reshaped by, were adapted to and were updated and re-created by a broad and amorphous sense of how services should work, not by the experience or expectations of any one service

In that sense, service quality is an emergent property of environment.

Take a seat. It’s as comfortable as we all think it should be.

Picture by Haldane Martin licensed under creative commons CC-BY

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