Tag Archives: education

What are Public ‘Services’

In a previous post I highlighted some of the challenges that are inherent in managing public services due to the nature of being ‘public’. However, there are also challenges that come with managing a ‘service’. These challenges apply across private and public services, and whether delivered by public, private or Third sectors.

These issues are quite important to recognise for all managers given the continuing rise of the service sector across the world. In fact services account for 62.9% of global GDP

The key characteristics of services are intangible, heterogeneous, inseparable, and perishable as defined by Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry 1990 (although some, notably Lovelock and Gummesson, 2004, have questioned this classification).

Intangibility

Services are largely intangible. They are about having an experience. Of course there are some physical characteristics associated with most services, such as the quality of chairs in a fine dining restaurant, but what makes services unique from goods is the extent to which perceptions of service quality are impacted by environmental factors and customer-provider interactions. These intangible factors are very difficult to control or manage.

Take, for example, a business offering guided bus tours of the Scottish highlands. There are a number of physical features of this service such as the comfort of the seats on the bus. But ultimately much of the service experience will be influenced by factors entirely outside of the control of the business – weather, the interaction with staff, the behaviour of other customers on the bus (to name but a few). These intangible factors make service interactions very unpredictable and difficult to control.

Creative Commons license: by Pedro Szekely

Perishability

The fact that services are intangible also means that they are not easily stored for future use. So if there is excess capacity this cannot be stored to be sold at another time. In other words, services are perishable.

Take, for example, a street performer. If they do not attract a significant audience for their performance that equates to lost income. They cannot get that time back. Hence the pressure within many services to get ‘bums on seats’. Consequently, pricing is key – particularly with services that have high fixed costs and a fixed capacity such as with cinemas, restaurants and bus tour companies.

Creative Commons license: by Trey Ratcliff

Inseparability of production and consumption

Most services are produced at the same time as they are consumed. So the street performance will be consumed at the same time as it is ‘produced’. This means that quality control is much more difficult than with goods. It also places significant pressure of service staff to always ‘perform’ at a consistent level. This requirement of service workers to perform is best described by the Hochschild (1983) concept of emotional labour. Numerous studies have shown that the strain of constantly having to perform can lead to stress-related illnesses. This blogpost by Flip Chart Fairy Tales highlights a number of other reasons why people in service occupations tend to have more sickness absence that in other occupations.

As an example of the inseparability of production and consumption take transplant surgery. The medical staff must perform consistently under the most extreme pressure with every single patient. Mistakes can cost lives and, unlike with manufacturing, are often not easily rectified. Yet quality inspection and control can only happen at the same time that the ‘customer’ is receiving the service. Furthermore the speed of service delivery is critical. Under these circumstances it is truly impressive what our health workers do on a daily basis. Hence those who use a service, such as the NHS are likely to be more satisfied with the service than those who do not as outlined in this Ipsos Mori report.

Creative Commons license: by Army Medicine

Heterogeneity

The intangibility and the fact that production and consumption take place at the same time means that the service provided may be slightly different every time. This has significant advantages in terms of customisation and innovation. But it is also costly and can lead to dissatisfaction if a minimum service level is not met.

So a service experience, like a rock concert, may be different every time. Take for example Bruce Springstein’s recent Hyde Park gig where he sung the song, Take Em As They Come, especially for one of his fans in the crowd. The flexibility of many services allows for this sort of innovation and customisation. However, this may be experienced by different people in different ways – even at the same time. The need for some control is also highlighted by the fact that the same Hyde Park gig ran over time to such an extent the organisers were forced to turn off the speakers in order to comply with the terms of their licence.

Nonetheless, the more a service is standardised (which improves efficiency) the less personalisation can be achieved (potentially affecting effectiveness). Imagine if a barber gave every customer the same hair cut. It might be very cheap and efficient but would almost certainly affect customer satisfaction. Given the increasing focus on efficiency over effectiveness it is perhaps not surprising that public attitudes towards the NHS are falling.

Creative Commons license: by Christian Holmér

Conclusion

These factors, when taken together, mean that services are very difficult to manage. When you include the publicness of public services, as well as the complex problems many such services have to deal with, it is perhaps not surprising that they are not always perfectly efficient. Indeed it has been pointed out on this excellent set of posts by Flip Chart Fairy Tales (Part 1; Part 2) just how difficult efficiency gains are in service industries. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t even try to create efficiencies – but it might help to start with realistic expectations.

References:

Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. California: University of California Press.

Lovelock, C. and Gummesson, E. (2004) “Whither services marketing?”, Journal of Services Research, Vol. 7 No.1, pp.20-41.

Zeithaml, V.A., Parasuraman, A. and  Berry, L.L. (1990) Delivering Quality Service. New York: Free Press.

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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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Twitter and Student Engagement

Yesterday I had one of those experiences that remind me why I love my job. I met a group of academics from King Saud University, one of the world’s top universities. I had been asked to speak about the use of Twitter as a way to promote student engagement. The response was really terrific. Lots of debate was stimulated and my session ended up going well beyond the 20 minute time allocation – and could have easily continued for considerably longer.

It was encouraging to see so much enthusiasm for learning and teaching and so much interest in the use of Twitter as a possible way to enhance student engagement.

The key point from my presentation was that Twitter is a tool that offers a lot of potential in promoting student engagement. This is particularly so beyond formal class time. It is not, in my view, an alternative to formal class time. Student attendance and participation during formal class time is still critical to the learning experience. I also think that academics have a duty of care to students which can only be assured through regular contact. However, Twitter, and other social media, offers a valuable way to engage with students beyond formal class time.   

Anyway, here is a copy of my slides on the topic. Particular thanks to Anna Evely (@AnnaEvely); Stuart Hepburn (@stuart_hepburn); the LSE Impact Blog (@LSEImpactBlog); Anthony McNeill (@anthonymcneill); and Mark Reed (@lecmsr) for some useful sources which are listed at the end of the presentation.

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Why You Should Tweet!

  1. Share
    I will #livetweet on use of twitter in research next Wed at 1215. Using #phdtweet. Please join in. More info to follow. #highered #loveHE
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 05:03:39
  2. Share

    Fri, Apr 27 2012 08:24:29
  3. My initial tweet on the subject attracted a lot of interest and was RT’d several times including by Guardian Higher Education.
  4. Share
    RT @ian_c_elliott: I will #livetweet on use of twitter in research next Wed at 1215. Using #phdtweet. Please join in. More info to follow. #highered #loveHE
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 05:25:18
  5. Share
    Thanks to everyone for your interest in the #livetweet #phdtweet event and for your RTs. More to follow next week. #LoveHE #highered
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 07:58:43
  6. In advance of the presentation I posed a few questions so that others could participate in the discussion. Tweets using the #phdtweet were displayed live on screen during my presentation. The questions and a few interesting responses are listed below.
  7. Share
    #phdtweet Q1. How has twitter helped you with literature searching?
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 06:51:11
  8. Share
    @ian_c_elliott Continually distracted me. Occasionally led to something useful. Allowed me to stalk favoured writers.
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 07:55:28
  9. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I’d say it’s helped me make contacts that have led me to new literatures #phdtweets e.g. @DrDaveOBrien & @Localopolis
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:26:57
  10. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I search for and collect tweets relevant to my case studies – many politicians and all public agencies tweet #phdtweet
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:39:33
  11. Share
    #phdtweet Q2. Has anyone used twitter to help with data collection? #highered #LoveHE
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:56:51
  12. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I’ve sourced many participants from twitter – general (members of the public etc.) & specific (certain professions etc.).
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:00:50
  13. Share
    #phdtweet Q3. How can twitter help with dissemination of research findings? #highered #LoveHE
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:39:00
  14. Share
    @ian_c_elliott absolutely brilliant for dissemination. Got twice as many hits as avg. for: http://bit.ly/II0iiS thanks to @amcunningham
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:54:41
  15. Share
    @ian_c_elliott re Q3 #phdtweet @QMUeResearch tweets automatically when new papers are put into it. A small thing, but hopefully helpful.
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 11:32:02
  16. Share
    #phdtweet Q4. How can twitter help with career development for early career academics?
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 03:38:32
  17. Share
    @ian_c_elliott Q4 opens up so many opportunities to work w/ those outside your uni, good way to learn about how unis “work” too #phdtweet
    Tue, Apr 24 2012 10:22:36
  18. Share
    @ian_c_elliott gave confidence to even consider doing PhD, &in response to other q, you can see beyond yr immediate surrounding #phdtweet
    Tue, Apr 24 2012 10:26:21
  19. Share
    #phdtweet Tweeting can help find co-authors & perhaps lead to an award-winning paper: http://bit.ly/f6FFI6
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 07:15:00
  20. The presentation was to be recorded for iTunesU but unfortunately technical problems meant that the recording did not work. However my slides are available here: http://storify.com/ian_c_elliott/why-you-should-tweet
  21. During the presentation lots more suggestions were made as to how Twitter can help with the development and dissemination of research such as this tweet from Brian Kelly:
  22. Share
    #phdtweet A tweet can take you to Catalonia! http://bit.ly/dNQlmW
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 07:30:03
  23. As well as the fairly instrumentalist rationale set out in the main body of my presentation I also highlighted what I believe to be the moral case for use of social media by academic researchers.Queen Margaret University was founded with the aim of extending educational opportunities – specifically to women who in Victorian Britain were excluded from Higher Education. Today social justice remains a key part of what we do. In addition, the creation and sharing of knowledge is ultimately what academia is all about.

    Twitter, and social media in general, provides new ways to both create and share knowledge. As such we should all consider how these new tools can help. I really like the following blog post from Brian Kelly on this subject:

  24. Share
    #phdtweet Do you want to observe the world or change it? If the latter, Twitter can help: http://bit.ly/IkDp6J
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 09:00:11
  25. Following my presentation there were a number of questions including how to reference a Tweet and the discussion continued through the afternoon.
  26. Share
    hears question on referencing tweets. Yes it can be done – just another source of information #phdtweet
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:01:22
  27. Share
    @ian_c_elliott @QMULRC Doesn’t a reference need to provide info that allows validation (e.g. a link)? or doesn’t this matter with tweets?
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:48:03
  28. Share
    @Localopolis @QMULRC useful guide available here: http://www.mla.org/style/handbook_faq/cite_a_tweet
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:39:04
  29. I believe there are great benefits to PhD students in engaging with Twitter. I would recommend that you get an account and, as a starting point, search for the #PhDchat. You will find it easy to make contact with other PhD students and academics.
  30. Share
    @qui_oui yes, #PhDchat is a really good resource. I would highly recommend it to all PhD students. #phdtweet
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 09:41:55
  31. A lot of people have asked if there will be another #livetweet event – perhaps one focused on use of Twitter for learning and teaching activities. This is something I would certainly be interested in facilitating if there is sufficient interest.Watch this space!

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