Does the public sector really understand its customers?

Local councils today are under greater economic pressure than ever before. Continued austerity means public sector budgets are being stretched to their limit as a result of 40% budget cuts made by central government.

The budgets local authorities have are therefore even more valuable, especially to those constituents who rely on critical services, such as social care for adults and children, emergency services and housing benefits.

This means it is essential for local authorities to understand how to best spend the funds available to meet the needs of local citizens.

Under the microscope

For most local authorities the ‘getting to know you better’ process with its citizens is already underway, but like most relationships it’s complicated.

There is a disparity between how well local authority departments know their own customers compared to others – therefore, gauging an overarching consensus on what customer knowledge exists, and how well it is put to use, is difficult.

>See also: How public sector ‘change agents’ will rebuild organisations and societies from the bottom up

However, if a local authority’s remit as a service provider was put under a microscope, it would have to be argued that no other service-led organisation in the UK responds to and supports so many different citizens with such vast and varying needs.

With such complicated provision that encompasses thousands of people, it’s understandable to see why some local authorities find getting to know their customers a difficult and time-consuming task.

Cardiff County Council alone is responsible for 352,000 citizens and provides or supports more than 700 services. An average citizen comes into contact with up to four Council departments for different purposes and will register their personal details with each of them.  

It is rare for departments to share that information with each other, or have the technological capabilities to do so, which leads to duplication and a missed opportunity to have a holistic picture of each person.

Looking to the private sector

Local authorities have been using technology-based systems to drive down operational and service costs over the past few years, and have achieved great results.

This has paved the way for more technological advances, which have been spearheaded by central government reports supporting the greater use of technology in the public sector as a whole.

The Policy Exchange Report 2013 ‘The Big Data Opportunity’, for example, clearly outlined the impact a better data management and enhanced technology would have on citizens and front line services.

The report stated: “For citizens, the application of data, technology and analytics can cut paperwork, get questions answered more quickly, help people find and claim the benefits they are entitled to, and tune front-line services more closely to individual needs and behaviours.”

To truly take a citizen–first approach, local authorities need to understand their needs and what services they access within the council. Being able to do that via an outline platform will make the process even quicker and easier.

The public sector has already started looking to the technology being used by the private sector to gather customer data. CRM systems, which give a 360-degree view of customers, have been an integral part of the sales and marketing armoury of private businesses for some time, and the most forward-thinking local authorities are now following suit.

As a result, for the first time councils are able to see the interaction all departments have with each citizen – and are reaping the rewards this can bring.

Citizen-focused services

A change instigated by technology always brings with it a number of challenges. The local authorities that are leading the adoption of customer-centric technology are therefore already starting to overcome the hurdles that others will face in the future.

Legal issues and concerns about data storage and privacy all present stumbling blocks to the cost savings that can be achieved by putting the citizen first and revolutionising services. Some local authorities are working in isolation to overcome these hurdles, but others (rather cleverly) are sharing best practice and information.

>See also: Gartner’s top 10 government tech trends in 2015

Local government in the UK should look at its international counterparts, many of which are making great strides to ensure their services have their citizens’ interests at the core.

A great example is in the city of New York, where there has been the creation of the Mayor’s Department of Analytics. This has defined the standards for working and storing data and created a virtual network of how it can be shared across all organisations and their citizens.

As a result, there is a greater understanding of what citizens’ needs are and how services can be shaped to address them in a cost-efficient manner.


Sourced from Chris Smith, Bluefin Solutions

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...