ETHOS Issue 04, Apr 2008
In the past several decades, governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of good service delivery to their citizens. Faced in some cases with manifestly poor quality services, as well as with numerous claims of inefficiency and ineffectiveness, leaders in the public sector have invested a great deal of energy in improving the quality of public services. This improvement has come about in part by outsourcing services, following the adage of the New Public Management that governments are better at steering than at rowing. For those public services that have remained directly in the public sector, however, quality has been a major concern and there have been numerous efforts to make those services both more efficient and more satisfactory for the public.
The evidence from service delivery efforts in the public sector has been encouraging. First, when the quality of services is measured, they tend to compare favourably with the quality of services delivered in the private sector.1 This relatively favourable ranking on performance has actually been evident for some time, although ideologies and anecdotal evidence have tended to emphasise the failures of government. Second, the quality of public services appears to be, in many instances, improving and, in some cases, improving significantly. Programmes administered by governments—for example education social services, environmental protection—are often difficult to deliver because they involve complex chains of causation and delivery, but the evidence is that they are doing better. The final piece of good news is that the majority of public employees are interested in providing high quality public services and are motivated to invest their time and energy in making government work better. Further, a good deal of this motivation appears to be intrinsic, rather than the product of manipulating economic rewards and sanctions.
The objective evidence that has been collected about the quality of service delivery is important, but we should also be cognisant of the more subjective aspects of public programmes. In some ways, these subjective elements may be as important, and in some instances more important, than the more objective elements of quality. Providing public services is a crucial interface between state and society and, as such, provides a mechanism for promoting more positive linkages between citizens and their governments. The basic argument then is that for political and governance purposes, how services are delivered is important—just as it is important what services are delivered.
Most citizens, especially in the large, complex political systems that characterise the contemporary world, have relatively little direct contact with their political representatives. Citizens may vote for those representatives, and are entitled to some representation, but the direct linkage is weak and there are relatively few face-to-face interactions between citizens and their political representatives. There are in most societies many, many more interactions between public servants and the public. These public servants may be the police officer, the schoolteacher, the tax collector or the postal clerk, but the interactions with their clients of all these officials do matter in creating an image of the public sector. Thus, for most citizens a significant portion of the image of government that they have may be created by their interactions with public servants.
The stress that has been placed on service delivery has engendered a good deal of measurement of the quality of public services and the performance of the public sector. Again that emphasis on the objective performance of the public sector is welcome and is important for defining the accountability of the public sector. Unfortunately, however, there is less emphasis on the subtler but equally important subjective elements in the contact. To some extent, that is measured through the “customer satisfaction” element of quality, but those measures may leave out important elements about interactions.
How services are delivered is important—just as it is important services are
This emphasis on the importance of interactions between the public service and citizens should be considered in the context of the discretion exercised. Public servants, despite exercising authority delegated by law, do have considerable discretion when dealing with their clients. They can choose to enforce the law in minute detail or they can choose to be more helpful and supportive of their clients. There are instances in which the public servant must, and should, follow the letter of the law, but there are also instances in which some use of discretion can help not only the citizen but also the image of government. This discretion can therefore help to define what government is to the ordinary member of the public, defining government as being benevolent or bureaucratic, positive or punitive.
This discussion leads to an important point about the semantics involved in delivering public services, a point that has become more apparent as the ideas of the New Public Management (NPM) have come under greater scrutiny by both practitioners and by academics. Much of the language of NPM has been about serving the customer of the public sector. This phrase contains some important advice about how to improve the objective quality of the services provided, but it may mislead in terms of the politics of service provision. The public stands in something more than an economic, customer role relative to government. Members of the public remain citizens and therefore are entitled to be treated as individuals who are at once the subject and the object of public policy.
In addition to the creation of images about the public sector, the interactions between public servants and the society can also be an important locus for fostering democracy. Going back at least to the now ancient work of The Civic Culture,2 the creation of administrative efficacy was seen as important to building more participatory political cultures. However, the role for the bureaucracy in building democratic participation extends beyond making the public more efficacious. The public service also can be a means of helping to build civil society by providing a locus for the inputs from those social actors. Particularly when the representative dimension of politics is not well-developed, the openness of the bureaucracy to demands and suggestions from society can provide for at least some of that representation.
The public has more than an economic, customer role for government. They remain
citizens who are at once the subject and the object of public policy
In summary, the delivery of public services is more than the mechanical completion of certain mandated activities on behalf of the public; it is also a central political activity linking the public with their government. Public servants are central to this linkage and therefore are in the rather difficult position of having to balance demands for responsiveness to the citizens with demands for responsibility to law, and to their political and administrative leaders. Phrased somewhat differently, public servants must be aware of serving their immediate clients as well as serving the public in general.
- Van der Welle, S. and G. Bouckaert, Public Service Performance and Trust in Government, International Journal of Public Administration 26 (2003): p125-67.
- Almond, G. A. and S. Verba, The Civic Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).