Monday, November 10, 2008

Balancing customer, agency and political needs in an online world

Long-serving public servants are familiar with the challenge of balancing customer, agency and political wishes, with a clear understanding that the role of the public service is to implement the policies of the government of the day and not to be customer advocates or lobbyists.

In the commercial sector similar challenges are often faced between customer, management/board and shareholder interests, however often the choice of master to serve is less clear. Without customers a business fails, thereby failing to meet the goals of management or shareholders.

This influence doesn't exist in most of the public sector - citizens are not able to pick and choose their service provider, the government makes that decision for them, providing many services in a monopoly environment.

This monopolistic model has worked well for government over the last century, ensuring that the bulk of citizens have a consistent experience - whether by phone, print or face-to-face.

However the effectiveness of the monopolistic model doesn't fully hold in the online world. Suddenly governments are not the only organisations with universal reach, and suddenly citizens can create services that fill gaps left by government.

This has given rise to a multitude of sites where, for little or no cost, citizens are providing better and more cost-effective services than can the slow moving and cumbersome wheels of government.

These citizen-provided services are also totally citizen facing, without any need to answer to political masters, making them often better attuned to community needs.

How should government address the challenge of these 'competitors',
by crushing them out of existence (an easy task for legislators)?
by ignoring them (as often seems to currently be the case)?
or by embracing, supporting and encouraging them?

Personally I feel governments should embrace and support these 'competitors', helping them access government data in order to improve their offerings and aiding them in reaching broader audiences - even at the expense of the government's own sites.

Of course, this willingness to be transparent and collaborative doesn't occur over night - as discussed government agencies are not acclimatised to competition, and the skills of most agencies do not reflect the skills useful in a competitive environment.

However I hope that this changes over time and government begins to support and foster these competitors, learning from them how to better meet the needs of customers.

Here's a video about some of the work of these citizens in filling service gaps that government had not yet either seen a need for, or been funded to address.

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