194 – Essay No. 4 – Local government and customer service.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              4500 words

basil fawlty

Customer service is, and should be, a major concern for local government. After all, councils are service organisations. Sometimes there is confusion about exactly what customer service means, how it relates to public service delivery, and what aspects of service are most important to get right in local government.

This essay focuses on three hypotheses:

  1. That ‘customers’ in local government are different to the customers described in most customer service literature and encountered by most service organisations.
  2. There are six main opportunities for local government to improve service to customers.
  3. There are simple tools available that can assist councils in getting service delivery and customer service right.

Continue reading

160 – Making a local government service catalogue. Part 2: What to do with it?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                      630 words

service category

In the first post I described a service catalogue and looked at where (and how) to start making one. This post discusses what to do next to refine the service catalogue and use it to improve organisational performance. I have no doubt that a service catalogue is essential to starting a discussion with the community about services required in a rate capped operating environment, however it should also drive continuous improvement by providing a focus for service reviews.

The ‘first cut’ service catalogue that defines services from the customer viewpoint and links that view to organisational structure, is really just the start.

Further analysis is required to determine the link between the service catalogue and organisational strategic plans (especially the council plan). This can be achieved by coding the spreadsheet of cost centres with the themes or key objectives or themes in the plans. This will allow further analysis by pivoting on different criteria. What is the link between council plan objectives, customer defined services and cost centres? Continue reading

159 – Making a local government service catalogue. Part 1: Where do you start?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         740 words

service catalogue food images

Across local government in Victoria councils are starting to discuss core and non-core services and the need to make a service catalogue – in other words, list of all the services they provide. In part this interest has been sparked by rate capping and the need to better understand where revenue is going. Any council attempting to increase rates above the Essential Services Commission cap will need an argument that is supported by their community. So what is a service catalogue?

In its simplest form it is a list of all the services a council offers, and by default, anything not on the list is not offered. It doesn’t mean that other services can’t be offered but there will need to be consideration of the costs and benefits before committing to do so. The list will need to be controlled once it has been made.  Deciding what services you will and won’t offer (and who will and won’t receive them) is at the heart of strategy. Continue reading

157 – Captive customers. Why are they so special?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         850 words


The idea that our customers (i.e. the ratepayers, residents, businesses and citizens in the community) are captive to our services is not new, however the implications are seldom discussed in local government. What does it really mean for service providers when their customers are forced to pay for services they may not use, or for service levels that may not meet their specific needs?

The idea that we will have choice in matters affecting our lives has become sacrosanct in western society, especially if we are paying. Customer service standards today are unrecognisable from those of the last century. Nobody expects to wait. If what they want isn’t available, they expect the service provider to get it – and quickly. If service falls below the normal standard they expect compensation. Social media is giving voice to unhappy customers and putting pressure of organisations.

In this environment, getting customers to pay for services in quarterly instalments and then receive standard services designed to suit ‘everyone’, leads to obvious conflicts. Continue reading

142 – A question. If I was the CEO what would I do? Answer: Focus the change effort.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                            740 words

boat builder CEO

I am sure being a CEO isn’t easy. The political environment in Australia is difficult and even more so in local government where the politicians are unpaid and not supported by political parties. There are many other pressures from the external environment – i.e. changing State government legislated responsibilities and increasing oversight of council operations; contentious urban growth and renewal planning decisions; inadequate State services for transport, education and health; and changing community expectations of service. So, if it was me, what would I do?

To begin I would not let the limitations and problems of the political and external environments dominate my management of the organisation. They are both urgent and sometimes important. However, they are not easily influenced and can take all of top management’s time and energy for little return. By all means be engaged and influence where you can but my approach would be to put my effort where no one else can and where I will get the best return.

By doing this, I think there would also be an improvement in the political environment and a stronger position to tackle the external pressures.

What do I mean? I would get my house in order. I would ensure that the resources at my disposal are used to create the maximum value for the community that has provided them. My goal would be for every ratepayer and resident to love living in my municipality. They would love it so much that they would tell all of their friends about it. They would offer to pay more for the services that they or their neighbours need. Every day social media would have stories of the great experiences people have had dealing with the council and the surprisingly good value they received.

Expectations would be met for basic service and exceeded where the value is visible and appreciated. This is the value capture that Sayan Chatterjee  talks about – councils don’t want people to value the services they provide and to offer to pay more so that the council can make a profit. Councils are not in that business. Instead, councils want them to be loyal customers who enjoy the value they get from paying their taxes. That enjoyment and loyalty is the value capture.

I wouldn’t ignore the outside world but I would want to be leading an organisation that redefines community expectations and delivers outstanding value. Here is how I would do that in order.

  1. Provide a more inclusive and less autocratic management style that suits local government culture and organisations expected to work that way with their customers.
  2. Set clear strategy – who are/are not customers; what service will/will not be provided to them; and how will it be done efficiently using available resources.
  3. Improve the customer focus by putting customers first (I mean really putting them first, not just saying it) through understanding the value they expect and designing services to provide it within available resources, now and in the long-term.
  4. Create better processes to make decisions and delegate more decision making and empower staff throughout the organisation so that more decisions are made and faster.
  5. Establish greater accountability by setting expectations and measuring performance so that feedback is provided to support achievement and create a performance-orientated culture.
  6. Focus innovation on areas of the organisation where significant change is required and set up systems to so that everyone continuously improves.
  7. Simplify the complexity inherent in local government by identifying and eliminating process constraints that have developed over time.
  8. Focus on productivity by ‘unlocking’ the capacity of people and resources to ensure that the required services are being provided as efficiently as possible.

I have been told (by a CEO) that a world where ratepayers and residents enjoy the value they get for the taxes is unrealistic and unachievable.  If that is what our leaders think, what hope is there?

I have used an image of a boat builder for a reason. I have a relative who owns and builds wooden sailing boats. After talking to him, I think that leading an organisation is a lot like building a boat. You need to design the boat to optimise the performance required – does it have to be safe in all conditions, will it have to make fast passages, or will it carry burdensome loads? One boat can’t do them all.

Then materials must be selected and the builder needs to understand the properties of those materials – how they are worked to make the boat, how they will perform under load, how they will fail, and how they can be repaired.

A boat must be made with care. There is a right and a wrong way to do it, and doing it the wrong way could lead to failure and loss of life. Finally, the boat needs to be beautiful.

This is an important point for local government.  In the same way that there is no joy in building or owning an ugly boat, success in local government must also include a sense of pride and achievement in having contributed to something worthwhile.

Chatterjee, Sayan 2013. Simple Rules for Designing Business Models, California Management Review, Winter.

106 – Some of the seldom asked questions in local government. What are they?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          390 words

the thinker

I am sure these are not the only great unasked questions. But they are questions that frequently come to mind when you are in one of those interminable meetings talking about the same old topics.

  1. How does this add value? This is a question that often runs through my mind but it never seems appropriate to ask it. It just doesn’t seem relevant. As much as we say that we are serving the community, we choose to do it in our own way. What the community sees as value, and how they want it to be delivered, isn’t something we question enough.
  2. Am I the best person to do this? I like this question and have regularly asked it of my direct reports and encouraged them to ask it. My Group Manager has never asked it. As officer, we seem to like spending time doing things that we know how to do well, or that make us feel good because we have ‘saved the day’, or because it is just easier than the effort required in getting someone else to do it properly. Looking for the work that only you can do, and then doing it, can take you out of your comfort zone.
  3. What can we do to act on the customer survey? Each year, councils in Victoria participate in sector wide customer satisfaction monitoring. The survey results are made public and daily media report on the state wide results. Through this process it is possible to be identified as the worst performing council and this places a high level of pressure on councils. But does it lead to serious questioning of what can be done to act on the survey and really make a difference? Not often. There will be discussion about the results. A lot of time will be spent discussing the shortcomings of the methodology. But really trying to understand the results and act to improve customer or community satisfaction by taking some risks to improve value? I don’t think so.

After writing them, I found that there was a theme to these questions – we need to question what we are doing to make sure that we are adding value by doing what needs to be done to satisfy purpose or meet need or create value. Call it what you like, just do it.

97 – A question: What if we treated the community the way we treat internal customers?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          400 words

bins in street

Colin Weatherby’s post about corporate services reminded me about a video clip that I saw some time ago showing what life might be like if the airlines ran like the health service. It was an interesting way to challenge accepted standards and made the whole system look out of touch. Colin’s post about our corporate services colleagues made me think that a similar parody might be needed to highlight the lack of respect internal service providers within councils often show for their customers.

Here goes.

Customer Service Officer (CSO) sitting in call centre answers the telephone to incoming call from a resident.

CSO:                      Hello, how can I help you?

Resident:             Hello. I put my bin out for collection on Monday and it hasn’t been collected. It is now Wednesday and I am wondering what is happening.

CSO:                      Did you put it out the front?

Resident:             Yes. I put it where I always put it on the nature strip.

CSO:                      Ah. There is your problem.

Resident:             I don’t understand.

CSO:                    Well, we no longer collect bins from out the front of houses. It is a new cost saving measure that will save lots of money. We won’t have to increase your rates by nearly as much this year. It will save at least $5 a week per household.

Resident:             But no one told me.

CSO:                     That’s because it would have cost us a lot of money to tell people. We don’t want to waste money.

Resident:             So what will happen now?

CSO:                      That depends. Do you still want your bin emptied? Continue reading