…as long as you don’t mind who takes the credit; or so said Eleanor Roosevelt (or Harry S Truman); and you could be cynical and say that whoever it was, it was obviously someone of significance who had clearly reached a point in their life where they didn’t need to worry about harnessing the credit for anything further. But you’d be mistaken. The good leaders have known for sometime that the secret to their own success is to create the conditions in which other people can shine; it is a well known if still under-practiced corporate truism that if you focus on the success of the people around you, it is the surest way to guarantee enduring success for yourself and your organisation. Step forward Jim Collins and of course David Ogilvy, the latter of these famously encouraged his managers to always hire people better and more able than themselves lest their departments and the business become a collection of little people with little ambition and ability.
But this doesn’t apply in the Public Sector…the Public Sector has mastered the art of the management of credit. And it has done so at both the organisational and the individual level. Early in my Public Sector employment, when I was still under the naive assumption that working in the Public Sector wouldn’t be that different (don’t laugh) to the Private Sector; because after all, surely everything still hinged on satisfying the customer? I was told by an experienced consultant that to succeed in the Public Sector I needed to grasp two concepts; firstly, that the customer was not the service user, the customer was the agency or government department that was channeling the public funds, and secondly, you must be able to manage the credit for things that were already happening or things that would happen anyway. I was puzzled by this explanation (I’ve never been the sharpest knife in the drawer) and asked them to explain what they meant.
The consultant, who at that time was working with a local council said, “It’s about showing your funders that you did something, that you undertook a level of activity, or that you spent the budget you were given in the allotted time, its about being able to evidence the activity that you’ve undertaken, even though you may not have achieved anything. If the local economy grows then you say it was because of what you did and if the local economy shrinks you say it would have been worse if you hadn’t been there, if less people smoke you say its because of your Public Health campaign and if the same number of people are smoking, again, you just say it would have been worse without your efforts” … I contrasted his words, which were the well meaning words of an experienced practitioner, with my fifteen years of selling and sales management experience. In the world of sales, in fact in the real world of business, it has simply never been enough to evidence your activity, something needs to happen as a result of it. Customers are won and customers are lost, money changes hands and things generally happen as a result of whatever activity you undertake. If there is nothing tangible happening because of the activity you are undertaking, you and your activity are seen as surplus to requirements…this is not harsh, it is socially responsible because it is necessary to ensure the survival and prosperity of the wider business.
As for the Public Sector definition of customer, and the customer not being the user of the service, I’m still never sure when I’m in meetings with Public Sector colleagues whether we are speaking the same language when we talk about “meeting the needs of the customer” … if like me you’ve ever worked in a commission only sales position (I remember the 80’s well) you’ll have cottoned onto who the customer is pretty quickly; they’re the person who’s needs you must satisfy to ensure you get paid, and for the Public Sector, this is where much of the confusion begins. The Public Sector sees it primary stakeholder as the funding channel through which its money comes, satisfying this customer is seen as the priority because this customer has the power to increase and decrease resources at will. The Public Sector is in the dubious position where it does not give the same focus to the users of its services because the benefits of doing so are limited.
Philip Kotler in his book Marketing in the Public Sector makes the point that user satisfaction is a function of user expectation versus performance, and given that most people don’t expect much from Public Sector Services then why bother improving them? Until the Public Sector finds the courage and morality to put the needs of its service users first and represent their interests to its funders, then service users who are often the same tax-paying public that fund it in the first place, will continue to expect and get little from Public Sector services.