What are ‘Public’ Services

Public service organisations are highly complex for many reasons. As such it is important that any education or training for public service workers is tailored to the public service context. One particular aspect of this complexity is the nature of the ‘public’ who they serve.

I was (along with others) really sorry when the excellent We Love Local Government blog was brought to a close. This blog was I think exemplary in its content and analysis of all things public service. It will remain a valuable resource to my students on the MPA programme and indeed also my PhD students.

One of my particular favourite posts on the blog was about the three publics. This highlights just one aspect of what it is that makes public services so complex and difficult to manage. What this blog post highlights is that private sector organisations deal with two publics – those who use their product / service and those who don’t but might in the future. However, public sector organisations have to serve the needs of three publics – users, potential future users, and non-users.

‘Private’ services

Take for example a builders. They will be responsible for ensuring that any building work is compliant with building regulations and as a business they must meet other statutory requirements. However, ultimately they are accountable to one public – their customers.

The builders might also offer free estimates for those who might use their service in the future. They might do some other targeted marketing such as putting flyers through doors. So they may engage with another public – those who may use their products / services in the future. But ultimately the builders only have to deal with one public – their customers.

‘Public’ services

In contrast, the public sector have to serve, and are accountable to, three publics. There are those who use the services, those who may use the service in the future, and those who will never use the service. Hence, the three publics. All three publics are important stakeholders and are not limited by voting patterns or payment of taxes. The public sector is there to serve everyone.

What does this mean for managers?

Well, one distinct feature of the public sector is that they cannot choose their customer in the same way that the private sector can.

For example, in the case of the builder, they have autonomy to choose their customer. They may, for example, provide an overly-inflated quote if they do not want or need the business. They may choose to work within a particular geographical area or indeed may choose not to do certain types of work or choose not to work for certain types of people.

This choice has significant benefits. It enables the private sector organisation to specialise in offering a particular type of good or service to a particular type of person. So, M&S will design their stores and select their products based on a very different rationale to say, Lidl. Both are very successful businesses but both are significantly enabled by this ability to discriminate. In particular the ability to discriminate helps to reduce costs by enabling the development of standardised systems which can help reduce errors and system failures.

On the other hand public services are there to serve the entire public. No matter who ‘walks through the door’ they must be served and their needs addressed as best as is possible. This means public service providers need to be highly flexible and adaptable to different user needs. Any attempt to develop standardised systems in public service environments restricts street-level innovation, often does not work and leads to failure demand. See this excellent blog post by Flip Chart Fairy Tales.

Implications for training and development

The need to be flexible and inclusive is difficult and expensive. Imagine, for example, a restaurant that tried to offer both fine dining and budget fast food at the same time – chances are that it wouldn’t work and all three publics would be left unsatisfied. Attempting to meet the needs of all of the people all of the time demands a particular skill set from public service workers. And with increasing change in society comes increasing change in public expectations and so public service requirements. This is why I believe the recent Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services was right to point to the need for better and more training and development. What is perhaps more questionable is the desire for a “single cross public service development programme” (Christie, 2011: 39) when there is so much variance in development needs.

On a traditional MBA course you would undoubtedly learn about the efficiency savings that can be gained from standardisation and removing variation from your business systems. This mantra fails to take account of the three publics and the complexity of public services. Hence training and development for public service professionals must be context-driven in order to be relevant to their needs. Public service professionals should be involved in the design of such training and development. Most of all, public service providers should not shy away from investment in training and development at a time when service improvements are so sought after.

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6 thoughts on “What are ‘Public’ Services

  1. […] a previous post I highlighted some of the challenges that are inherent in managing public services due to the nature […]

  2. […] there is some relevance to the service sector. However, public services, which have their own distinct challenges, have particular characteristics that make a lean approach more difficult to […]

  3. […] One of the complexities of public service organisations is the nature of being accountable to the public. Unless your ‘public’ are bought into the idea of innovation there are always going to […]

  4. […] are among the most stressed workers. Public service jobs are already tough as I have blogged about here and here. This is about to get even tougher. For employers the challenge will be to continue to […]

  5. […] to that mix the nature of public services (see here and here). What do I mean? Well, public services are often inherently complex and targeted at some […]

  6. […] to that mix the nature of public services (see here and here). What do I mean? Well, public services are often inherently complex and targeted at some […]

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