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Core Services — Part 4

November 21, 2012

In an earlier post, I argued that public service is the art and science of delivering priceless results for people at the lowest possible cost. If this is true, then, in my opinion, two of the three elements of public service delivery are of overarching importance: consistency and compassion. The third element of the public service triad — competence — is necessary too, but is not alone sufficient to deliver real or lasting value for citizens.

Public servants too often emphasize their competence over the other aspects of the services they provide. This may be in part due to the difficulty and discomfort measuring compassion and the very real consequences of performing inconsistently. When it comes to measuring the performance of public services, most public employees favor two metrics above all others: speed and staffing.

Oddly enough, neither of these matter nearly as much to most citizens. Emergency responders find this conclusion particularly difficult to comprehend much less accept.

When it comes to emergency services, most citizens understand that not all emergencies are equally urgent and very few are truly urgent. This is just as true when the emergencies affect them as when they affect others. Since the advent of 311 services in many cities, citizens themselves has self-selected out of requesting a 911 response. This suggests consistency has more to do with responding at all as opposed to coming quickly to every incident.

Similarly, I am often approached by citizens who wonder why so many people are standing around watching the action rather than doing something. And that’s when something is actually happening. Few, if any get to see what happens in fire stations and other public facilities between incidents.

On the other hand, when a response occurs, people will focus more on how responders perform as opposed to how many come or what they do. In fact, most people have very little idea what needs to be done. That’s why they call for help in the first place. As such, they always remember how the things responders did made them feel.

All of this suggests to me that the place to start when it comes to determining whether public services add value is to ask citizens not responders. When doing so, don’t bother asking whether people like public servants, especially public safety officers, and avoid assessing the status quo altogether. Instead, focus on what people know and how this knowledge influences their expectations and preferences. And remember, the opinions of people who have no direct experience of using public service matters too.

So, what then should we ask? For starters, we need to know how people prioritize things. We also need to know how these priorities are affected by competing and conflicting values. What limits, high and low, do people recognize that might define what they consider an acceptable safety net or ceiling for public services? And perhaps most important of all, what responsibilities do they expect apply to them as well as other citizens? Does it extend beyond paying taxes to becoming involved?

Core services help a community function at its best. Seeing public value in purely economic terms is just as inappropriate and unhelpful as assuming that cost doesn’t matter. Consistency and compassion are core measures of public value to most citizens. Understanding and focusing on how we meet these expectations is just as important as measuring how well we do in other areas such as speed and staffing.

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