What should we call the people of Liverpool?

Some might think that this is a plea from the heart after thinking that not enough of them voted Lib Dem in May. Not so! It is occasioned by the release of a report last week by the Institute of Customer Service which looked at the relationships between a public service provider and how it interfaced with them both as a citizen and as a customer.
I was one of the 23 people interviewed for the ‘qualitative’ part of the report and during the interview was reminded of the fact that one of the most important debates we had inside the Executive Board when I was a member was, “are the people of Liverpool our citizens our customers?”

Of course this is a simplistic debate because they are both (and there is another C that I will talk about later). I took the high minded view that people were citizens and should be treated as such. The majority of the Executive took the view that they were customers and should be treated as such.

In fact the majority were right. Most of the interactions between the council and its residents are purely transactional. The average person has no desire to know how the bins are emptied, the parks kept green or the streets kept clean. They just expect the council to get on with their job and do it properly and cost-effectively. In fact most of them have no concept of what the council does or how it does it in any sphere. But until 2000 we did expect people to understand our system. There were no less than 450 reception counters within the council. YOU were expected to know the difference between environmental health and environmental maintenance. You were expected to know that there was no pint in ringing some of the services after10 a.m. because the staff were out. You were expected to have to traipse from a housing building having reported a repair problem to another building to report an external environment problem.

By 2012 all that was swept aside. You accessed the council through just 12 front doors or the telephone or e-mail system. Those front doors – One Stop Shops – were welcoming and clean and you could make an appointment to see someone. The person you met took responsibility for the relationship with you. They could solve your problem there and then in 95% of the cases and for the others acted as your ‘chaser through the system.

Getting the technology right was the easiest bit. Changing the culture within the council was by far harder, at least at the beginning. For too long too many councillors and staff had come to think that the council existed for them and their interests. The Council was not a customer led organisation but a producer led organisation with antediluvian work practices, over staffing and, in some cases, obscene bonus payments. But slowly the spirit of some people as released. After years of keeping their head down they emerged as champions for change. Some staff didn’t want to accept the change and left and others came to the authority because they saw that what the council was doing was leading edge and they wanted to be part of it. Many of the staff that arrived at that time are now Chief Execs or executive directors in councils and other public bodies throughout the Country.

That change in emphasis made a massive difference to people’s lives. In education for example we persuaded the Labour Government not to take education away from us because for so long Liverpool had provided dreadful education services which left our young people with no hope for a job in an increasingly competitive world. Within 3 months we moved the Department away from the cramped Dickensian conditions of Sir Thomas Street into a new set of offices in Lewis’. There were immediate improvements in key performance indicators within a year for housing repairs, education standards, cleansing. Our business units took seriously feedback from users and changed practice accordingly.

Our complaints procedure was totally overhauled. Within 18 months the local government ombudsman, which until 2000 had one system for dealing with Liverpool and one system for dealing with every other council in England, closed its special Liverpool office. David Henshaw as Chief Executive took person responsible for the process and on monthly basis business unit heads that were under performing were called to the ‘Headmaster’s Study!’

So when do we want people to be citizens? When we are discussing with them big picture changes to their services; their community; and at election time. Regrettably they do not particularly want to be in discussion with us. At the last council election only 30% of the population registered to vote used their vote. When we discuss big ticket items such as changes in service delivery people are not excited – except and until we can show that the service change will directly affect them.

Lots of people have got involved in the library discussion for example. If we are discussing demolition of properties; major planning items which affect a neighbourhood or similar activities we get a strong reaction because people do care and crucially understand what happens to THEIR service or THEIR community but have more sense than to get involved in discussions about the day to day service delivery. If I go into a shop I don’t care about how the book got there. I just want them to have the right stock to buy from at the right price. If not I go somewhere else.

And perhaps that is the most important thing for anyone in the public sector to remember. A private sector customer can usually choose to go elsewhere. A public sector customer, for all the talk about choice in education and the health service is usually stuck with one provider. We, should however, treat them as if they could move because when the paucity of service grew too bad they did leave. For decades they left our city in droves. Those that could move out did so and were often replaced with those who had no choice but to accept us and our services.

Where the report didn’t quite get it right was the fact that it left off a ‘C’. Outside the school system the vast majority of us have a superficial relationship with a council provider. We know about some of these services they provide such as bin emptying and street lighting because we see them. Other services we can be blissfully unaware of such as emergency planning and environmental health. We benefit from them but we don’t even see them. But for some people they have a much a closer relationship with the council and usually with a wide range of other providers as well.

Typically these are people with problems. Children in care, children and adults with mental or physical difficulties; people who lack mobility especially the elderly. Many people end up being intensively supported by the council. In fact excluding schools about 80% of our spending is directed at about 20% of our population. Don’t begrudge that proportion, however, when you get old you may move from the 80% to the 20%. For these ‘Clients’ we need to have special customer care. Some are inarticulate but most are more articulate than we give them credit for. Radio Merseyside used to have a programme about handicapped issues call “Does he take Sugar”, a question directly at someone pushing a wheelchair of a highly intelligent person.

Too often we fail to join up the needs of the individual around their needs but around our needs as a producer. We care for them well internally but do not join up our services in a way that has meaning and adds value to the person we are supposed to be assisting. Of course an elderly person will need help from a range of sources and organisations but they often lack a guide to take them through the system and ensure that the system joins up around the individual’s needs. So even where individual organisations have cracked the customer thing the public sector as a whole often does not.
Clients need more care and more listening to than customers.

I don’t want to dumb down the concept of citizen into the market led expectation of consumerism and markets by just calling people customers. But that is what they/we are. There should be no real external debate about methods of service delivery subject to fair employment practices and big picture targets for items like recycling rates. There should be an understanding that wherever possible the piper should call the tune and that we respond to the people not impose our ideas on them.

‘Citizens and Customers; Further Building the Case for Customer Serivice in the Public Sector’ Is available from the
Instiute of Consumer Service at http://www.instituteofconsumerservice.com.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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