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Straight Talk Technology

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Most government agencies do not deliver services to customers.

Market Business News defines a customer as a person or company that receives, consumes, or buys a product or service and can choose between different goods and suppliers. In the vast majority of cases, government service consumers cannot choose different goods and definitely cannot select a different supplier. Non-corporate government entities arguably have only one customer, that is the government of the day as a proxy of the people as a whole. As an individual, you can't choose a different police force to monitor and track traffic offenses. You can't pay your taxes to another agency, and you cannot get your welfare payments from another provider.

Using "customer" terminology brings with it thinking that may be counterproductive to a government service provision. It encourages conversations around product, cost, desirability, and market share.

Intellectually we know that government doesn't provide salable products; however, thinking in market terms can lead us down the path of market measurements. Take-up rates, market penetration, repeat customers, and brand preference are relevant when the consumer is the customer, but not all apply when the actual customer (government) defines these services to meet different objectives from the consumer.

As an example, let us consider welfare payments: rental assistance is a benefit for low income families. In market terms, the government, therefore, should be seeking to grow the use of this service. However, the overall government objective is to reduce the demand by enacting programs and policies that provide affordable housing or change the socio-economic status of recipients. In this case, overall success is measured by a reduction in demand, not an increase.

Utopia is an Australian TV satire focused on a fictional government agency called The National Building Authority – think of a modern Yes Minister (the 1980s sitcom satirizing the inner workings of the British government). During a community engagement session the agency head wanted to understand the best thing he could do for the small business people in the room:

Government official: "If you could click your fingers and get the government to do anything for you, what would it be?"

Constituent: "Get out of our way!"

For public services, confusing the consumer for a customer will often lead to flawed analysis and therefore poorly directed effort.

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