What do we really think of our public services?

What do we really think of public services

To help me write How to Survive Austerity I undertook a simple survey to help me gauge the views of a range of people on how they perceived our public services. I took a reasonable cross-section of roles and industry sectors for the purposes of developing a comparison model. All had more than ten years’ experience in their sector. Some of those in the public sector also had private sector experience.

I must add that my survey and the benchmarks do not claim to represent a definitive nor scientifically derived conclusion. This was a survey designed to give an idea of what people think about the public sector.

The views on public services

1. Quality of public sector services
First, I asked about the perceived quality of public sector services and if it was getting better or worse. As you could perhaps anticipate, private sector respondents thought the quality was poor and getting worse while public sector respondents thought it was pretty good, if static. Interestingly, public sector respondents thought that austerity was being used as a tool to drive through difficult changes. They also thought those changes were more likely to happen than without austerity.

2. Cost of public sector services
Next, I asked for views on costs. All the private sector respondents thought public sector costs were too high, while all those in the public sector thought costs were about right or cheap for what they delivered. All respondents agreed there was a much greater need for the public sector to understand its costs better and to be able to explain them to the public better.

3. Reporting on the performance of public sector services
The final area I probed related to performance reporting and in-forming the public about how well its public services were doing. Unsurprisingly, I had a real mix of responses on that topic, ranging from a ‘total lack of useful information’ to ‘good quality reporting in some circumstances’. Even the latter comment, representing the more positive end of the spectrum of responses, was not exactly glowing – and not likely to find much favour with the public in the New Public Sector.

The message from the survey

So the message was that the public sector must become much better at presenting performance information in a more accessible way and in a way that is truly meaningful to the public, allowing the public to decide if services are offering good value for money.

The key issues I derived from this small survey to develop a model for the New Public Sector are:

  • Those within the public sector tend to be more critical and more specific than those in the private sector about the key issues and challenges that need to be addressed to improve quality, costs and performance.
  • The private sector is clear that the public sector must reduce its bureaucracy and must be much more accountable for the services it delivers, adopting private sector norms of informing and engaging with its customers.
  • There is a clear need to involve the public more in the design, development and operation of public services, so that they feel they have greater control over the services they pay for.

These three key issues should not come as a great surprise to most public sector managers. Although each service will vary, often dramatically, there can be little argument that all public sector managers will aspire to be efficient, relevant and wanted, even if the services they provide are stipulated by law, regulation or by civil need.

Whether you work in the public or the private sector it would be great to hear your thoughts.

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