Public Benefit: Entrée or Side Dish?

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Consider this scenario for just a moment: what if all public sector organizations were now required to hang out a sign in their window, “Open for Business!” or “Business Practices R Us!” or “We’re Business-Certified.” Sounds like a silly idea, right? But it is the kind of direction we’re moving in all across the nation. It spells trouble for public sector organizations and can be bad news for America.

Throughout the country many public sector organizations are turning to a “customer service” model—from foster-care centers to nonprofit civic groups to public agencies to even colleges and universities. The goal is to see people—program recipients, parents, taxpayers, students—as consumers of services.

In our research, public sector leaders and professionals tell us they are embracing this business model for many reasons. Society’s challenges have grown deeper and seemingly more difficult to overcome. Resources are tighter and demands for accountability are much greater. Funders want clearer results. Indeed public sector organizations are being pushed to be more efficient, more responsive and more effective. And the business world is considered the font of wisdom for making organizations of all stripes work better.

But imbedded in the customer service model are certain assumptions that are dangerous when put to work in the public realm—notions of customer satisfaction; the customer being always right; the individual customer having to be served. Such an approach strips out any notion of “publicness”—that there is a common enterprise in which we must engage. That people must assume responsibility for themselves and their community. That generating public will and knowledge requires give-and-take. That pursuing a public mission is about an organization meeting a common goal, not an individual’s private needs.

Of course, there are areas in the public sector where customer service might produce much needed improvements—such as in how to answer telephones, fill requests for information and handle certain financial and administrative functions. But we may be doing a greater disservice to the health of public sector organizations, and more importantly to society, by so literally and comprehensively adopting business practices. An important alternative to the ill-fated customer model is an approach that I call thinking publicly.

This call for engaging in a common enterprise is not simply part of some academic theory or high-minded rhetoric. There are challenges within our society that we can meet only when our common energies are called upon. That is the enduring story of America. It is about how we continue the common march, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “for the improvement of our condition.” Public sector organizations were formed—from the days of our Founding Fathers to those launched just yesterday—to help us reach the promise of America. At issue is not merely how well we run organizations, it is how strong and vital our public sector organizations can make this land of ours.

Imagine you are now standing in a sandwich shop. The line is long and the people behind the counter are working hard but are clearly overwhelmed. You and others are hungry and getting impatient. So, what do you do? Do you all of a sudden decide to jump over the counter to help make sandwiches; go behind the cash register and ring up people; maybe head to the refrigerator to replenish sandwich meats? Of course not, you demand better service!

That’s what the customer model tells people to do. But buying a sandwich is fundamentally different from what a community must do to seek a better education for its children, help individuals get the health care they need or meet the challenge of low-income families in search of housing. There are, in such instances, decisions to make about our common direction, responsibilities to shoulder, choices about allocations of scarce resources, trade-offs about who gets attention.

Yet what usually happens when someone from a public sector organization goes out to meet with people who receive its services or are affected by that organization’s work? What I often hear goes something like this: “What can I do for you?” or “What’s wrong with what we’re doing?” or “How can we improve our services?” or “What else would you like us to do?”
These are the very same questions the sandwich shop owner would ask his restless customers. The questions work for a business, but how about for a public sector organization?

Embedded in the customer service approach is a set of hidden assumptions and practices about how we choose to think about and engage with the public realm. But these assumptions create traps for public sector organization seeking to fulfill a public mission. Consider these seven traps and their alternatives.

Focus on Demands: Recall the questions I noted earlier that the public sector representative poses when meeting with others. The customer service model often asks people to provide input based on their individual frustrations and demands. Ever been in such a conversation? You can literally feel it tighten and close down as people sound off, complain and stake out their territory.

In thinking publicly, the driving force is people’s aspirations, not their demands. The operative questions are, “What are our aspirations for what we seek to achieve?” and “What might these mean for our public purpose in acting?” The very nature of these questions opens up possibilities as people focus on what they seek, and what society should seek, not what’s wrong.
Unmitigated Self-interest: In the customer service model people are encouraged to focus on their self-interests—“What do you want?”—with little regard for the common good. At issue is how an organization can best serve you. This approach sends signals that it is perfectly okay to remain entrenched in your own needs and to act as a claimant on public resources.

But in thinking publicly, we place a premium on engaging, indeed challenging, people to transcend self-interests—not to leave them behind, but to identify, consider and interact with those of the common. This reminds me of a Philadelphia woman, who in one of our studies exclaimed, “All I hear about these days is I, I, I… When are we going to start saying We! We! We!”

A False Sense of Public Will: In the customer service approach, we assume, as would a neo-classical economist, that all we must do is aggregate people’s preferences (self-interests) and voilà—we derive a “demand curve” for services. Through this discovery we often believe that we have come to define the “public will.” We do this daily by lining people up at town meetings for quickie comments and tallying their concerns or by taking superficial public opinion surveys.

“Public will” is not the mere aggregation of individual preferences but something that is generated. It emerges through people struggling over how they define a challenge, work out the tensions among priorities and choices and then find a path for public action. It is in this very process that we create new ideas and durable agreements for public action.

Undercut Sense of Responsibility. : As people offer input in the customer service model, seldom do questions shift to “What do you need to do?” or “What can we do?” Such questions usually are antithetical to the customer service model.
But these questions are at the very heart of thinking publicly. They engage people in discovering their individual and public responsibilities and attaching themselves to those responsibilities. Indeed it is through this process, in part, that a public or a community can form.

Unrealistic Expectations: In acting as customers, people’s expectations often grow and go unchecked. Recall the motto, “The customer is always right!”—or, put another way, don’t ruffle the customer’s feathers too much or too often. This leads to unfettered expectations, only to be dashed when reality sets in.

In thinking publicly, organizations work vigilantly to set and maintain realistic public expectations, even amid a push for grander talk. Over time, this becomes a matter of public trust and credibility. It also means having to say no rather than feeling intense pressure to accommodate.

Hyper-sensitivity : In the customer service model, whenever someone complains—for instance by sending an e-mail or leaving a voice message—the organization feels compelled to respond immediately. Getting back to people is good customer service.
But I have found that in the name of being responsive, organizations often confuse an individual view or set of individual views with an idea or need or hope held commonly. In thinking publicly, the public sector organization acts out of a deep understanding of its community and spends time developing that understanding, not engaging in a collection of self-selected interactions.

The Organization as First: As a public sector organization works in a community in the customer service model, the service recipient or community can offer their input, but the provider maintains and often (unwittingly) protects its role as the essential actor. After all, in this model the mind-set is that the organization is the owner of the sandwich shop.

In a more public model, we see everyone as a potential public actor. So we work hard to examine deeply what is the role of public sector organization professionals in taking public action and what is that of individuals and the community. For there are some things that people can only do for themselves. In thinking publicly, the goal of the organization is to figure out where it fits into a larger picture.

What if we were to run public sector organizations like the busy sandwich shop? Despite the hopes and challenges within society, no one would ever jump over the counter, or few people would decide to move back in line so that someone else might go first. Unfortunately, these kinds of actions will not do in a common enterprise.

The move by public sector organizations to so swiftly and enthusiastically adopt the customer service model acts to squeeze out any notions of “publicness” from the public realm. The model’s assumptions are rooted in a narrow, individual-based, demand-driven, self-interest focused conception of an organization fulfilling its public mission. While this approach might generate high marks in customer satisfaction surveys, it undermines the need to understand, shape and meet a public mission—and all the things that go into it.

The public realm can work only if we—individuals and organizations—assume responsibility for ourselves and our communities. For no organization alone can meet, for instance, a community’s education or health care or housing needs. We all know this. A host of people in their everyday lives, and a variety of organizations, must step up. There is public work to be done—which requires thinking publicly.

So, imagine this—a world in which the banner hanging in the front window of every public sector organization is not “We’re Business-Certified” but “We Think Publicly!” Now wouldn’t that be a nice trend.

Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation based in Bethesda, Maryland. THI has trained scores of public sector organizations and leaders in Thinking Publicly. His e-mail address is (rharwood@theharwoodinstitute.org); see (www.theharwoodinstitute.org).