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Balancing Power for Better Public Services

Local governments strive for efficient, high-quality services and delighted constituents. Community engagement is one method of providing customer service for the government. The 311 line, the open houses, the community presentations – community engagement is about ensuring the recipient of our services is pleased with the exchange, much like a customer.

While we might not have the outsourced 24/7 call center or the ability to offer a dissatisfied customer a refund, the goal is making the person on the other end content with the services we provide.

It’s not a perfect analogy, because the government is decidedly not a business. We don’t have a direct competitor to provide local services. We can’t discontinue service lines that aren’t profitable. But there’s a lot that we can learn from the history of customer service. Let’s dive in.

Who wears the crown?

Right or wrong, the customer is always right.

Marshall Field, department store magnate

In the early 1900s, the idea of customer service was more novel than it is today. In the 20th century, we moved from the past – when you visited a separate local grocer, butcher and haberdasher – to the modern department store that contained many of the same goods under a single seller.

When a customer enters my store, forget me. He is king.

John Wanamaker, merchant and marketing pioneer

Shoppers could now get their goods from one of several department store chains. Stores began finding ways to distinguish themselves from each other. Stores could set themselves apart by advertising. Another way was focusing on providing a more pleasant experience in the store itself. Here we begin to find the concept of the “customer is king.” This was the idea that the satisfaction of the customer came first, even at the expense of the comfort, profit or dignity of the store and its staff.

It’s good to be the king.

Mel Brooks, satirist and playwright

But kings seem to have gone out of favor, with a few notable events before 1900 and numerous cultural changes during the 20th century. It’s not surprising to see kings fall out of favor, because vast imbalances of power tend to result in toxic behaviors (ex: Nero in 67 c.e. or Karen in 2020).

By the turn of the 21st century, more enlightened styles of customer service began to prevail. Leadership of companies turned away from “customer is king” to a different model. Richard Branson is known for for embodying a more modern and balanced principle in his Virgin enterprises: ensure that the employees are happy in their jobs, and they will give the customer a better experience. Branson wasn’t the only one to bring power back to his employees, but he gets a lot of credit for popularizing it.

Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.

Sir Richard Branson

The pendulum of customer service swings back to a more balanced relationship between employees and customers.

Bringing balance back

Values in customer service are trending back to a more equal power balance between staff and customers. It simply works better: a company succeeds when its employees are respected and feel valued. How might we translate this balance of power to the design of government services? Here are a few ideas how we can make sure other government staff have a pleasant experience:

  • Build business processes with empathy for other participants (co-workers and customers). Think about how the next person in your process receives what you do. Whether it’s your finance department or a different strain of engineer, when you deliver a service or hand off a process step, take the time to think about how it will be received by the person who is next.
    • Do they expect what you’re giving them?
    • Do they know what to do with it?
    • Do they have everything they need to take their next step?
  • Collect data with forms, not documents. Sometimes, projects require multiple contributors. When you’re gathering data from multiple participants, help them get the data entry right the first time by using forms to collect the data. Give other participants a more pleasant experience by designing a nice form for them to contribute their data.
  • Add value before asking favors. When you can, help other staff members without asking for anything in return. It all comes back, and you can establish yourself as a helpful person in your organization. Build relationships, not resumes.

How about youhow do you balance power between clients and public employees? How do you make life easier for your peers and staff? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected].

Jay Anderson is responsible for digital engagement and public processes at the city of Colorado Springs. Jay holds an MPA from the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, where he also serves as the Chair of the Dean’s Community Advisory Board. Jay focuses on the point of engagement between the community and its institutions, creating programs that give a voice to people who want to have an impact on their government.

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