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Core Services — Part 3

November 20, 2012

One of the best perks of leading a public agency involves receiving feedback on the agency’s activities and performance from citizens. I have had the good fortune of working for agencies that enjoy strong public support, so, more often than not, the feedback is positive.

Lately, I have found the way people inside an organization hear and respond to this feedback even more interesting than the citizens’ comments. What seems to be getting through most clearly to them is how much they are needed and appreciated. They see this as validation of the status quo, and evidence of future funding support to sustain the system the way they want to see it run.

It should come as no surprise that I hear something quite different. The things that stand out to me are how often citizens express appreciation not for the speed or skill of our service providers, but rather their heartfelt thanks for the care and concern shown them and their loved ones. To me, this suggests the importance of comforting people ranks at least as highly in the public mind as delivering competent service. In fact, that’s really where responders add value.

This certainly does not suggest the quality of service can be judged solely by how people feel about it. But it does say something important about what we should emphasize and strive to sustain.

No public agency should take public support for granted. Neither should it assume that public satisfaction equals willingness to pay, especially if that means paying more for services measured first and foremost by speed and staffing.

One of the reasons people place so much value on how well we treat them is that’s no longer expected of government and not so often seen these days. We hear regularly from those running for public office that government is the problem not the solution.

This perspective neglects the fact that government is an important vehicle through which citizens care for one another. If that’s not the case, then government and those who deliver public services are nothing more than hired hands. And if that’s true, then they should not only expect but even demand to be treated well. The fact people are still surprised when this happens, though, suggests they see us differently. They have a sense of ownership of our service and take pleasure and pride in seeing us treat them as they would expect us to want to be treated ourselves.

One of the things I fear the most about the future of public service is what I see as a very real risk that public servants are becoming disconnected from the communities they serve. Fewer and fewer of them live where they work. And increasingly public agencies not only seek but expect basic support from the federal treasury. If this trend continues, citizens’ surprise may come not from the fact that we them well once we arrive, but rather that we come at all.

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