Improving Public Sector Performance by Seizing Opportunities to Meet Citizen Needs
- What Do Citizens Want and Get from Public Agencies?
- What Tools Currently Used in the Private Sector Can Most Benefit the Public Sector?
- What Role Can Marketing Play in Improving the Performance of Public Agencies?
- Going Forward
Let us begin with the end in mind, painted by scenes from a day in a not too distant future—a day in which the interests of citizens, as well as public sector agencies, are served:
- In Oregon—Todd checks his morning online newspaper and rereads a headline—to be sure it was for real. “Post Office reports record profits and will hold first-class stamp rates at 39 cents for the next five years.” It seems services for small businesses are soaring.
- In Kansas—Sophie heads out the door with her fourth-grade daughter eager to see if this “walking school bus program” the school district raves about will really help Allison lose the ten pounds her pediatrician said she should. If successful, it’s also supposed to cut the district’s transportation costs by fifteen percent.
- In Los Angeles—Juanita picks up her carpool partner who jumps in and places their renewed carpool sticker on the windshield, downloaded from an email she received last night from the city. She mentions a new feature on the Web site that also allowed her to reserve their favorite spot in the city’s parking garage before leaving home.
- In New Jersey—Trent, an operations manager at a construction firm, receives an email notice that the state’s Labor and Industry workshop he wanted to attend has been expanded, so he can now get in. He hopes what he heard will be true for his company—that those participating in the workshop had reduced workplace injuries, and that the following year insurance premiums were down.
- In Texas—Bobby Joe climbs into his pickup and pauses, gets back out, and glances at the DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS sticker on his own bumper. He decides he didn’t put it on there just to keep the bumper from falling apart, so he pulls out his cable and wraps it across the bed to secure his load of wood debris.
- In Jordan—Sabbah listens to his 11-year-old son who shares with him the results of a water audit he conducted on their home, an assignment he received in school today. His son then shows Sabbah pictures of water-saving devices they could put in their shower and kitchen sink and tells him how many gallons it might save their family (and their country) each day.
- In Capetown—Trudy turns the corner and comes to an abrupt stop as she sees the flashing lights on the street outlining the crosswalk, indicating that a pedestrian has stepped off the curb in front of her car—someone she hadn’t seen.
- In Finland—Tuomo clamps on the new spikes for his shoes he received yesterday at the community center. Free for many seniors as a part of the country’s effort to increase physical activity, they are supposed to help keep him from falling when he shovels his sidewalk clear of snow and ice.
- In London—Julia wanders down to the city park on her lunch hour, eager to see the new traveling interactive art exhibit on display there. She can’t help but notice the crowds at the new food concession stand on park property, and she hears from the owner that the city will be using revenues from this public/private venture to buy more litter receptacles for the parks and city sidewalks.
- In Singapore—Johnson opens a utility bill that includes a message recognizing his household for reducing electrical usage during peak times and, as a thank you, a coupon worth $50 on conservation-related products at a major home supply retail partner.
- In Rome—Giacomo arrives home from a business trip, eager to tell about an airport he was in that afternoon where he made it through security in record time, as they now have little booths you walk through that don’t require you to take anything out of your pockets or briefcase. He also noticed they had less than half the security staff he usually saw at each checkpoint.
On closer examination, you would likely see that this possible world is one where governmental agencies have clearly seized the opportunity to meet citizen needs—in a way that contributes not only to social good but to economic and environmental good as well. By offering quality programs and services, they have increased citizen interest, revenues, and satisfaction. By improving and reporting on agency performance, they have engendered support. By developing infrastructures mindful of citizen inclinations and behaviors, they have increased public health and safety. By communicating effectively, they have motivated voluntary compliance. By providing easy access to services, they have increased utilization and even decreased operating costs. And by forming partnerships with the private sector, they have been able to expand services, improve ambiance, and deliver a few welcome surprises.
We have written this book to support current and future public sector managers and staff in discovering this clear link between meeting citizen needs and improving public agency performance. The focus is on how to use fundamental, proven marketing principles and techniques to accomplish these goals. The aim is to choose goals and actions that serve the Common Good, those that create the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people. Good in this public sector context is defined in terms of social good, economic good, and environmental good—measures often referred to as the triple bottom line.
Before turning your attention to marketing’s potential contribution, a few questions are first worthy of discussion to provide a backdrop grounded in reality.
What Do Citizens Want and Get from Public Agencies?
Every society needs a public sector, for which the most important function is to define the operating principles of the society. Who is the government? How are governing officials elected or selected? What does the government allow, and what does it prohibit? How is revenue secured to pay for government operations? How do citizens influence their government?
A second role of government is to perform those public services that are critical to the public interest, such as responsibility for defense and the military. National and local governments believe that they should manage essential public services, such as policing, fire control, parks, libraries, zoning, energy, sanitation, road construction, education, and healthcare facilities. Often the argument is made that certain services should be run as natural monopolies—such as the U.S. Army or the U.S. Postal Service—because they must be under a single command or would gain scale efficiencies.
A third role is to provide necessary public services that neither the private sector nor the nonprofit sector want to handle or can handle with existing resources. Thus governments typically provide assistance to the poor independently or in tandem with the agencies in the nonprofit sector.
Because government operations are carried on at a great cost to its citizens, however—consuming in the U.S. more that 40% of taxable income—citizens want them to be conducted efficiently and effectively. We grow up experiencing the efficiency of private enterprise and then want comparable performance from public agencies.
Unfortunately, many are critical of government services and what they perceive as wasteful purchases and practices, a lack of needed services, and a perversion of government by powerful interest groups. Specific complaints are probably all too familiar to you:
- Taxes are high, and we don’t get our money’s worth.
- Some government agencies pay scandalous prices for common goods, and there are million-dollar overruns on government contracts.
- The nation’s public infrastructure (bridges, roads, etc.) is deteriorating in spite of road taxes.
- Public agencies are often slow and inflexible because of excessive bureaucracy and rules.
- Public employees are overprotected even in the face of incompetence or unethical behavior.
- Public school failures lead to poor education that leads to poor jobs that lead to broken families and drug abuse that lead to crime and imprisonment.
- Poorer citizens are given inadequate help to improve their conditions and to escape the cycle of poverty.
- System problems create long waiting times, lost correspondence, dirty streets, and more.
- Inept communications create confusion (e.g., Medicare prescription drug plans).
- Lack of responsiveness creates anger (e.g., FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina).
- Being out of touch with your citizenry creates programs doomed for failure (e.g., the Susan B. Anthony dollar often mistaken for a “quarter”).
Clearly, the public sector needs to improve its real and perceived performance in order to raise the public’s confidence and satisfaction—and thereby their support. Without this support, citizens take action such as initiating tax rollbacks and voting for representatives who promise agency change or elimination.