From customer-centricity to citizen-centricity for human services providers

Customers expect more from the brands they interact with than ever before. The rapid advance of technology means customer expectations are sky high and getting higher. Customers want to spend minimal time and effort to get what they want, and they expect authenticity, directness, and personalised service.

Even for organisations accustomed to factoring in customers as a priority, the now required shift of focus toward true customer-centricity is a major challenge. But the shift in expectations applies to all organisations, even those with no real tradition of considering the ‘customer first’.

A particularly interesting case study is government. The traditional service-led model of human services delivery, for example, has been described as a ‘medical’ mode, because it positions individuals as problems. Service delivery under this model has been population based, with a one-size-fits-all offering typically focused on pre-defined services or support.

But a customer-centric model demands services that are tailored toward the individual’s specific needs and desired outcomes. The service provider must listen to the individual to better understand their needs, and then respond in a more integrated way.

This represents a significant transition for both the organisation, and for the individual. The individual shifts from being a passive recipient of services to becoming an informed, active customer. It is also a fundamental challenge for governments, whose agencies are often constrained by traditional delivery models and inflexible legacy systems.

Understanding the nature of this challenge is contextually illuminating for all leaders exercised by the customer-centricity challenge.

From customer-centricity to citizen-centricity

So what are the fundamental differences between the customer-centricity and citizen-centricity?
Perhaps most obviously a ‘customer’ is assumed to have a level of choice about their interaction with a private company that a user of government services may not. On the other side of the equation, companies are able to segment the market and choose their customers – a luxury not available to public services.

But fundamentally a customer differs from a citizen by the way their satisfaction is defined. A company is able to consider a customer’s interests within the scope of their interactions with that company. A citizen’s satisfaction, however, must necessarily be defined more broadly – beyond the boundaries of any individual service provider in question.

Delivering citizen-centric public services therefore requires a more detailed, nuanced and holistic understanding of citizen expectations, the tools and skills to engage and co-create with end-users, and an integrated approach to service delivery.

With many government agencies at all levels already on a path to change, how can they tackle the challenge of keeping pace with their more nimble commercial counterparts?

Paths to citizen-centricity

The introduction of consumer-led models of service delivery – where consumers are empowered to exercise choice and control over their lives and the services they use – is a fundamental challenge to traditional models.

The changes extend well beyond the cosmetic and the structural. At its heart it involves a shift in the power balance between the consumer and the service provider by recognising that the consumer’s lived experience is a source of useful insights into what supports will be effective.
This model promises many benefits, including faster innovation, higher consumer satisfaction, and improved outcomes. But when you up end a model of citizen-focused service delivery there is also risk to consider – especially where vulnerable people might well be involved. The NDIS is a great example of this point. It has completely flipped the model to provide customers with more choice and control over their care packages. This philosophical evolution has meant both government and the NFP sector has had to change its mindset about how to meet customer needs.

What governments must realise is that if the abundant benefits of customer-centricity are to be realised, a level of defined risk must be accepted. The flipside of providing an incentive for people to exercise true choice is that they must be trusted to make that choice appropriately.

The NDIS has shown that this principle doesn’t have to mean giving people unlimited freedom to spend their allotted budget on whatever they want. But it does mean genuinely listening to an individual’s experience and trusting they may know better than you about how best to spend their budget. That has to be true even when those choices lead to services or solutions that a traditional human services delivery model would not have provided.

The leap is likely to be worth it. Providing choice drives service providers to be more innovative in the services they deliver and the value they add.

Of course creating this flexibility means service delivery models will need to be re-designed to enable people, in a practical sense, to make real choices and exercise real control. They need to be enabled to navigate the system and access the outcomes they need.

The NDIS has shown that one way for authorities to address this issue is through specialist and knowledgeable intermediaries. Based on the consumer’s desired outcomes, such service can helpfully guide customers towards the best range of options for the care they seek.

New data-driven technologies, as well as emerging tech like artificial intelligence, have enormous potential to assist in this process. However government providers should also be mindful that there is unlikely to be a satisfactory substitute for the human touch at any stage in the foreseeable future.

This article forms part of the Keeping Us Up At Night: The big issues facing business leaders report.


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