Increasing ‘customer focus’ has made a huge difference in how public sector services are delivered. It has helped us move away from relating to citizens as dependants – ‘take what you are given and be grateful for it’. As a result, we have seen a real improvement in not only the quality of services, but also in the types of services provided for citizens to choose from.
However, the imperfections of the ‘citizens as customers’ model are now starting to show. It’s good to have satisfied customers, but councils do not necessarily want more of them (if your customers are Looked After Children then ideally you would have no Looked After Children at all). Furthermore, customers are implicitly on the other side of the consumer/provider line where a customer consumes services and a provider provides them. But who says that the customer can’t also be the provider?
When I first joined IMPOWER I worked with a group of foster carers and one said ‘social workers should treat us like colleagues because we know the most about the child and we have been working with them the longest’. This was against a background conversation of foster carers expressing frustration at not being respected as co-producers of the child’s welfare. It all rang quite true. Public sector organisations should be seeing the people involved in our services as partners rather than customers; people who can help us solve problems rather than people who are merely receiving services.
Moving away from citizens as ‘customers’ and instead seeing them as ‘partners’ is not just high-minded rhetoric. It can be really practical. In fact, I’d argue that the future of public services depends on it.