Service Design for Government
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transformation of government services

For the People: Government as a Service Business

Can you recall your last great service experience – when someone went out of their way to delight you?  Maybe it was at a restaurant, a hotel, coffee shop, or a dry cleaner.  Perhaps they remembered your name or your preference or the service was easy to use, available when you needed it, or served its purpose without being overly complicated.  Chances are, your experience didn’t happen by accident.  That service provider knows that you have other alternatives and, in order to stay relevant, must put considerable energy into understanding their customers’ needs.  Furthermore, they are continually monitoring the  customer experience and improving.  It may be transparent to us during the transaction but your provider is working hard behind the scenes to bring it all together.

We believe that a similar model should apply to government services.  Government has customers who have a choice whether or not to transact.  Government services that continually monitor their customers’ experience and improve it will remain relevant.  This concept extends beyond the typically considered government-to-citizen services and across the other four major services areas in the government portfolio.  Programs that are responsible for workforce management, budget planning, or IT services within an agency or as a shared service also have customers that expect to be treated with the same care and courtesy as they would receive in their private life.  Do you have a clear understanding of why your organization exists and who it serves?

Not understanding that the mission is always to do something for someone also has consequences.  Opportunities to grow on what government does well or eliminate waste are not detected early enough.  Not understanding that every mission has a customer means that public service will only sometimes include customer service and public satisfaction with government performance will remain the lowest when compared to other key service sectors.  Not thinking of itself as a service business means that improvements in government performance will be isolated and driven by a random cadre of passionate leaders constantly challenged by the long-term average of “good enough for government work.”

Service is a founding principle.  The nature of government as a service business has its roots in the social contract that binds the governed and the governing and legitimizes government.  While retracing the origins of the modern state beginning from the Magna Carta would be tedious, some historical and philosophical context is useful so let’s dive just a little deeper.  We can look at the three men who together are the philosophical architects of modern Western government — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  They provide the notion of a social contract between the governed and their government.

  1. In Hobbes’s Leviathan, society occurs when fundamentally selfish individuals come together and cede some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (elevating themselves from the nasty, brutish state of nature by, for example, John giving up his right to kill Rebecca if Rebecca does the same for John).  A social contract exists when all individuals in a population beneath a sovereign authority cede some of their natural rights for the sake of protection.
  2. Locke’s conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes’s in a number of ways, importantly that it featured a separation of sovereign powers and the consent of the governed is a constant essential for legitimacy (Hobbes allowed for the occasional abuse of power by the sovereign).  In the Second Treatise of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the social contract exists to provide civil society — a “neutral judge” that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it.  Locke’s social contract was particularly influential for the framers of the American Constitution.
  3. To Rousseau, the social contract derived its legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the direct rule by the people as a whole in law-making.  In Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people’s representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but rather its expression; and enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will.

So when we bring these schools of thought together, government is formed when citizens collectively agree to cede individual sovereignty to an individual or group (the sovereign) in exchange for the provision of a defined portfolio of services.  In the United States, this portfolio of services is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution as, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Government is a Service Business.  Service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating the outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific cost and risks.  When we purchase something “as a service,” we want to directly experience the outcome or benefit without having to worry about the know-how, systems, and processes and it takes to deliver it.

To say that government is a services provider is to say that government delivers value to the governed (that is you and me) by facilitating outcomes the governed want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks of undertaking to achieve these outcomes individually or even in small groups.  Take National Defense as an example of a government-provided service.  Most people will agree that a nation has a much better chance of withstanding a foreign aggressor if it maintains an army than if the people were to rely on the tenacity of individuals or the valiant efforts of small militias.  Other examples include the construction of roads and canals, the conduct of diplomacy and foreign affairs, and general enforcement of the laws of the land.

In fact, everything government does can be categorized as one of five types of services.

    • National Services are government services to the nation as a whole, without intent to benefit one group, region, or industry more than another, including regulation that affects more than one industry.  National services are the purest sense of government services and we associate them with the missions of the Department of Defense, the Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • Citizen Services are provided directly to members of the public or individuals.  Examples include Veterans Benefits, Social Security, Federal Student Aid, Pensions, and the DMV.
    • Industry Services are provided for the benefit of specific industries either as a whole or to firms directly, including industry-specific regulation.  Examples include the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and much of the Department of Agriculture.
    • Regional Services are provided to or for the benefit of discrete geographic areas.  This includes parts or all of multiple States.  Examples are the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
    • Intra-governmental Services are provided to other parts of the government.  The work of the General Services Administration is the quintessential example of this type of service.  Internal service providers with departments and agencies such as human resources, acquisition or procurement, information technology, and finance are also forms of intra-governmental services.

Call to Action.  Service is about delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes.  Customers are the recipient of the value delivered by the service — usually, but not necessarily, the ones who pay for a service.  A family goes out to dinner, the are the restaurant’s customers; you buy a new pair of shoes at the mall, you are the shoe store’s customer; a homeless woman receives shelter and meals from a donor-funded organization, the woman — as opposed to the donors — is the organization’s customer.

While seemingly straightforward, this concept can get lost in the day-to-day operations of a service organization.  Customers are a discrete subset of their stakeholders, but at times these other stakeholders have more direct influence, control, or presence which can sometimes distract us from the needs of the consumers.  For this reason, it is critical to build a customer-driven mindset into the culture of the organization and integrate it systemically into the core operations of the service.  In addition to being good for customers, it also renews the sense of purpose that likely called people to public service in the first place.  Service business philosophy permeates all aspects of program management.

In our practice, we identified nearly a dozen key aspects of a government services where a customer-focused shift can significantly improve overall program performance.  In the coming weeks, we will explore the customers’ role in business architecture, strategy & planning, and operations.  Look closely and you will find there is a role for your customers in nearly every aspect of your business.

It is time to change the tone of government services.  Government is fundamentally a service business, at least for nations in which government is founded on the consent of the governed.  All who touch government would be decidedly better off if they conceived of government as a service business and operated as such.  This extensive ecosystem includes government executives and employees, legislators, judges, suppliers, service providers, consultants, lobbyists, and every citizen.

Once we understand that government is fundamentally the provision of services, and develop a common picture as to what that means, we can view government value and performance clearly.  The debates over what missions the government should and shouldn’t undertake will continue as long as the Republic stands, but success and operational excellence for any given mission or function can add a new method in the quest for objectivity.