Thursday, July 24, 2008

Does your agency really hear customers and staff?

A constant theme I hear from friends, family and peers is that, while government agencies do put a lot of time and effort into listening to their customers, they don't often hear what is said correctly (any do not even appear to put much effort into listening to staff at all).

This issue is not limited to the public sector, but in the private sector there's a simple metric for judging how well an organisation meets its customers' needs - it's called sales.

In the public sector we don't have this simple feedback mechanism - we often judge by backlash, which can have large impacts on governments, agencies and individual careers.

DOCs is seeing some of this at the moment. It's not always useful as an early warning system.

Fortunately, with digital media, we have many new tools we can use to open lines of communication. Forums, collaborative groups, wikis and social media networks all help organisations to listen to their customers, stakeholders and staff.

Use of these tools by a government agency requires an operational shift in organisational policies. This can be difficult but is normally achievable.

But it isn't enough simply to hear - government agencies must also hear what is said.

This involves putting aside organisational filters, perceptions and judgements and actively working to understand the context and goals of those we are listening to. It means initiating and participating in conversations, getting to know the other participants as equals, as communities and as individuals.

Digital tools can help support conversations, but they cannot create them. This requires cultural change, which can be significantly more difficult than simply introducing online social tools.

It also does no good to delegate participation to those with no power in an organisation - the decision-makers must be part of the discussion.

Otherwise, no matter how many listening channels you use, you can end up getting the message as wrong as the lady in the BMW commercial below.

How well does your agency really hear what customers, stakeholders and staff are saying?

By the way - did you notice that I said it was a BMW commercial, when really it was for Mercedes-Benz.

How well were you hearing?

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