7 Improving service delivery
The New Zealanders' Experience Research Programme tells us what New Zealanders want from their public services. They want their expectations met, they want the staff they deal with to be competent and to keep their promises, they want to be treated fairly and have their individual circumstances taken into account. They also want the service to be good value for tax dollars spent.
The things that drive satisfaction with public services have been thoroughly explored and more detailed information can be found in Understanding the Drivers.1 These highlights are drawn from that work.
Improvements that could enhance overall performance include:
- Select the right people for the job. Services need front line staff who want to help, have good people skills and are solutions focused.
- Ensure staff are adequately trained in how to deal with customers. Training should cover how to greet and treat customers with politeness and respect, how to determine people's needs, how to deal with difficult customers and how to treat each customer as an individual.
- Make certain staff have the knowledge and experience to meet customer needs. This means staff are well trained across the range of service enquiries they will receive, and that adequate back up is in place when an unexpected or more complicated situation occurs.
- In situations where customers are dealing with several agencies, ensure staff are trained to handle basic enquiries about other government agencies.
- Ensure all communications are clear and easy to understand.
- Where a promise has been broken or a mistake has been made, an apology should be given. There should also be an explanation of what happened and, if possible, an outline of what has been done to ensure it won't happen again.
The single most important driver of satisfaction with public services is that services meet expectations. People are more likely to say that a service meets their expectations when staff:
- listen to them, understand their circumstances and treat them as an individual
- know about the services their organisation offers and can help
- communicate in a clear and simple way
- treat them with respect
- are customer focused - friendly, polite and approachable
- follow through or do what they say they will do.
In order to improve, services should set and monitor service standards so that staff know what is expected of them and the public are aware of the standards they can expect to receive.
There is considerable overlap between meeting customer expectations and what it means to have competent staff. Competent staff:
- know about the services their organisation offers and can help the customer, or direct them to someone who can help
- listen to and understand their customer's circumstances
- are customer focused - friendly, polite and approachable
- can communicate in a clear and simple manner.
In order to improve, services need staff who can clearly explain processes and inform people, including speakers of other languages, of their entitlements.
A 'promise' is any undertaking or commitment made by a staff member or organisation. Keeping promises involves:
- staff who do what they say they will do.
- service standards (particularly for response times) so that staff know what is expected of them and the public are aware of the standards they can expect to receive.
In order to improve, services need a transparent and open complaints process and to ensure customers know about it. Complaints need to be investigated promptly and customers kept fully informed of the process and when they can expect a response.
New Zealanders generally assume that public servants treat people fairly. Kiwis Count showed that what matters most is the service experience rather than the outcome. Being treated fairly is the single most important driver for Māori. Treating people fairly involves:
- staff who treat all customers with respect, are non-judgmental and have a reasonable degree of flexibility
- treating people in the same circumstances the same
- explaining the reasons for decisions in a reasonable manner; this is particularly important if it is not possible to meet a customer's expectations.
In order for services to improve, New Zealanders have to feel they have been listened to and not treated like a number. What matters most is the actual service experience rather than the outcome.
When staff took the time to listen and ask questions in order to fully understand an individual's situation, people felt their circumstances were being taken into account. This was not about providing a different outcome but about exercising flexibility. Being flexible in these circumstances puts a human face on public services and leaves a strong positive impression. People feel that their circumstances are taken into account when:
- staff are able to exercise some flexibility, particularly in relation to scheduling appointments
- senior and more experienced staff with the authority to exercise discretion are available when individual circumstances need to be taken into consideration
- staff are professional at all times, for example showing customers respect by being on time and keeping appointments.
In order to improve in the area of taking individual circumstances into account services need to enable staff to exercise some flexibility and discretion around processes. This is flexibility in how people are dealt with, which may not necessarily affect the outcome of their dealings with the service.
People considered services to be good value for tax dollars either when the services were essential 'core' services or where they had received a high quality service. As well as this, New Zealanders placed higher value on tangible or visible services that they know about, so front-line staff were valued more than advisory or administrative staff. Television programmes about services such as Police, Customs and Fisheries had helped people appreciate the value of those organisations. Ways to increase the perception of value include:
- improve service delivery through meeting expectations
- inform customers about what fees cover and the benefits the service provides
- look for ways to improve public awareness of the services an agency provides and how its funds are spent.
New Zealanders' trust in public services is strongly influenced by media reports and anecdotal accounts as well as stereotypes of the public services from some television programmes. This makes trust difficult to earn. While levels of trust can increase over time as satisfaction with personal experiences improves, other influences mean that improving trust will remain a challenge.
People felt that trustworthy organisations were those that did a good job. They were also the ones that treated people fairly, did what they said they would do and admitted responsibility for and rectified mistakes. To improve trust agencies should continue to work on strengthening performance in these areas.
Few people were aware that public services have to meet standards for integrity and conduct. Although these standards are designed for internal purposes, there was support for them to be made more visible so that the public can hold staff accountable to them. Some participants had seen similar codes in hospitals advising of patients' rights and had found them reassuring. People also wanted to be able to complain if the standards were not upheld.
Finally, to improve levels of trust, it is important that visible action is taken promptly to address breaches when they are discovered.
1 Understanding the Drivers available at www.ssc.govt.nz/understanding-drivers-report