Monday, 26 September 2011

The dangers of being customer-centred

Who could argue with it? Public services and agencies should be customer-centred. It's constantly repeated and has become an article of faith - which usually means (outside religion at least) that it's wrong.

The urge to be customer-centred is partly a reaction from the old attitude that people receiving public services should be grateful for what they got, whether it was a pension or a planning decision. But that attitude is just about dead in most parts of the public sector (not, perhaps in welfare benefits or health) and the can be few people who haven't got stories about arrogance and lack of concern for customers in large private companies.

Nonetheless, surely it's good to see things from the point of view of the customer and try to give them what they want if resources permit? Not always. Being more customer-centred would certainly be healthy in the NHS, where centrally-imposed targets ruled until recently and few managers were much bothered about whether patients were happy or miserable, engaged or bored, or felt they were not treated as human beings. But secondary health services are one of the public services that can largely be reduced to an agency interacting with a "customer". Some can't.

Although a sophisticated understanding of who are a council's or the police's "customers" is possible - it can include a whole community plus others who pass through or work in a place - customer language persistently beckons people towards seeing public service as being like buying cheese in a supermarket or insurance on the internet. But if I choose to buy Lancashire cheese, the effect on someone else's desire to buy Cheshire is imperceptible. Some public services, like personal care for old and frail or disabled people, can be seen this way. There are pitfalls, especially around vulnerable people making informed choices, but they're capable of being overcome. Other public services and decisions are quite different.

Take two examples.

Social workers are trying to help the Jones family, who have multiple problems and are struggling hard to stay together and bring up their children. At the same time, neighbours are complaining about anti-social behaviour by the children, the police suspect the adults of fly-tipping, and one of the social workers notices something which could raise concerns about whether the adults are abusing their children. Who are the customers? Action that is in the interests of one customer and pleases him/her may be against the will and interests of others. This is not an academic question as I strongly suspect that in some recent cases of child murder, too strong a focus on the parents as customers was one of the reasons why the signs of danger to the children were discounted.

The local park, which had got a bit dilapidated, is being improved. Some people want some trees removed, and argue:
(1): It would give people a beautiful view down to the lake;
(2): There is some danger from falling branches;
(3): It would improve conditions for mountain-biking and tobogganing.

Others disagree and the following arguments are put by different people:
(1): The trees are beautiful;
(2): The trees sustain wildlife and are of more biodiversity value than open grass;
(3): Kids like them and an element of danger is a natural part of growing up.

No solution can be found which satisfies all the "customers". Someone will have to make a controversial decision. Moreover, should we consider as "customers" the future generations who will be affected by the decision - or the wildlife, whose value and interests may not be adequately represented by whether people think it cuddly?

We could hold a meeting of all interested parties and take a vote - or say that politicians are elected precisely to take tough decisions like this, and having lobbied them, we'll wait for their decision. Both of these are called "politics", which is how we resolve conflicts in an open society. But the constant talk of markets and customers in public affairs obscures this and creates an impression that public affairs, like the insurance market, is a matter of people serving your wishes in return for your money, and if you don't get what you want, they've failed. But as I've shown, in public decision-making this is not always possible. We are in danger of losing an understanding of how to resolve conflicts collectively by debate and democratic decision, and an acceptance that a fair process may lead to an outcome you don't like. That undermines democracy itself.

Let me finally refer to a big report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission called "Hidden in plain sight - an inquiry into disability-related harassment". It quotes two cases where a vulnerable disabled adult was seen to have an association with a teenage child who had his own problems - including a history of violence. Agencies aware of the matter looked at it purely as a child protection issue. The child beat up and murdered the adult. Public workers were no doubt determined to be customer-centred about the child.

So, OK - be customer-centred; but always ask at least, "Who are the customers? Have I included all the people who may be affected? Are there legitimate conflicts involved?". And remember education and nature aren't cheese.

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