Making government more invisible

People in government often like to think that government is important, failing to realise that they are seeing it from a rather unusual point of view.  For most people, most of the time, government is most successful when it is least visible, or perhaps least intrusive.  It’s nice that I can report the holes along the pavement in my road, which somebody dug three weeks ago and then abandoned, through FixMyStreet, but I would really much rather not have to.  Filling in my tax return online is much easier than wrestling with the old paper forms, but I would just as soon not have to do it at all.  I still marvel about the presentation I heard, probably five years ago now, lamenting that it was difficult to get people to become familiar with government online services because they didn’t need to deal with government all that often – and suggesting that the solution was to find ways of getting people to contact government more frequently.

Paul Johnston reports on the rather different approach being taken in Liverpool, listening to a presentation by David McElhinney, the chief executive of Liverpool Direct:

David’s focus was using customer contact to drive up performance and drive down cost and at the heart of his philosophy was the paradoxical assumption that customer contact was essentially a failure, something that should be systematically managed down in many areas to an ideal target of zero. On this approach generating a large amount of customer contact is a reflection of excessively complicated processes imperfectly implemented. So the solution is to simplify the processes and move towards one single way of doing any generic activity – so one way of receiving payments whatever those payments might be, one way of making payments, one way of collecting debt etc.

Of course, it can’t always be quite as simple as that, but focusing on the right number of contacts provides a hugely powerful way of identifying where problems are.  In the examples I started with, the right number of contacts for reporting holes dug on behalf of the council to the council is self-evidently zero.  But the right number of tax returns going from me to HMRC is one (at least from their point of view).  You can’t claim a benefit without claiming it, just as you can’t vote without voting.  Even some of that is about timescales, of course – we could have a tax system which didn’t need tax returns, but given the tax system we have got, some people have to do tax returns – there is an analogy here with the idea from economics that fixed costs are only fixed for certain periods or ranges of activities, and that in the long run all costs are variable.

So the more interesting form of the challenge is to identify and eliminate redundant contacts, perhaps by starting with a strong assumption that all contact is redundant and then asking what needs to be added back in order to add to, rather than subtract from, total value.

One obvious way of reducing redundant contacts is to reduce overlap and duplication.  There is often an assumption that that means integrating everything with everything else.  I have often wondered just how many people in a normal year want to renew their car tax, apply for free school meals and obtain a licence for burial at sea as a single transaction.  Understanding which services (from the providers’ point of view) cluster together to address which needs (from customers’ points of view) is pretty important. 

Liverpool seem to share this approach:

[David McElhinney] argued that the council does not really have an interest in having a full picture of its relationship with individual citizens, since if a customer gets in contact to complain about their rubbish bin not having been emptied, they are unlikely at the same time to want to discuss the recent planning application they made or their application for a resident’s parking permit.

The clustering Paul describes in Liverpool – CRM for payments in, separate CRM for benefits and payments out – sounds a bit odd in principle (the distinction is quite a producer-focused one), but probably works well enough in practice.  Worth finding out more.

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