At BDO we’re passionate about working with councils to help them deliver great customer service. So we were delighted to attend the launch of a new report from the Institute of Customer Service, ‘Citizens and Customers: Further building the case for customer service in the public sector’, earlier this week. The report raised some interesting questions for members and officers in local authorities across the UK. Here we highlight the challenge facing local authorities, where there is room for improvement, and some potential steps to increase performance.

A perfect storm

One thing is for sure: providing customer services in a local council is not as easy as in the private sector. Two issues create a perfect storm:

  • Statutory requirements. Unlike in the private sector, councils frequently cannot choose the nature of the services they provide. For example, a council couldn’t set up cheap low quality housing to tackle lengthy waiting lists for social accommodation because it has to meet Decent Home Standards.
  • Inability to tackle the cause. If EDF provide a great service to its customers the call on their customer service team will definitely fall. Local authorities have less scope to control demand – although there are opportunities as we set out below. It’s harder to provide a truly satisfactory service when you can only treat the symptom and not the cause of a customer’s problem. For example, a council can offer Discretionary Housing Payment or a home exchange but it cannot abolish the Bedroom Tax.

Comparing customer service in the public and private sector should therefore be done with great care.

Room for improvement

However, ICS’ report contains some rich data on the state of customer services provided by local authorities. Despite the challenges councils are facing there is room for improvement. Three lessons stand out:

  • Councils lag behind other local public bodies in the quality of customer service they provide. At BDO we’ve worked with many councils who provide great customer service. However, the data from ICS suggests there is room for authorities to improve. Councils have an average customer satisfaction score of 62 out of 100, compared to 68, 76 and 81 for local police services, GPs and fire services respectively.
  • Customer service isn’t one function of a local council, it is fundamental to everything that council does. ICS data shows a direct correlation between the quality of customer service received by a citizen and the level of trust they hold in that institution. Research from the LGA shows that councils are typically trusted more than national political institutions. That trust is a precious commodity. Declining trust in a public body can spread like fungus affecting everything it does – from its ability to collect taxes to the willingness of citizens to positively engage with services provided. Levels of trust in councils are affected by their relatively low ranking compared to local comparators (see above). The local council has an average trust score of 5.5 out of 10 according to ICS data compared to an average score of 7.6 across other local public services. It is vital that authorities recognise that good customer service is core to their entire mission. Not collecting a bin affects the willingness of local residents to pay their taxes on time or use the local leisure centre. In the mind of the service user each of these is connected and viewed through the prism of trust.
  • Benchmarking is crucial to improve performance. ICS interviewed representatives from the national and local public sectors, the third sector and the private sector. Across all sectors good quality benchmarking and data is highlighted as essential to driving improved performance. Given the relative quality of councils’ existing offer and the impact this can have on the ability of the organisation to function successfully, gathering good quality data and applying that knowledge to driving performance improvement seems an obvious takeaway for councils.

Shelter from the storm

Taking these lessons on board, there are several steps that councils can take to improve their customer service offer. We’ve already highlighted the value of gathering and analysing rich data on customers and using this to improve provision. A second step is to actively manage demand on services. This can create shelter from the perfect storm highlighted above, offering space to focus rigorously on improving services rather than simply fighting fires. BDO have led exciting work with local authorities in Kent, successfully applying the principles of behavioural economics to manage demand for services, shifting local residents onto easier to administer channels such as online self-service forms. We’ve blogged about it here. Whilst channel shift is often considered a short-hand for savings (where it does offer considerable potential), it is frequently under-estimated as a tool to improve services. Put simply, spending less time on simpler services means a council can invest more time in really helping those with complex problems.

The way forward

The ICS data offers some important messages for local authorities. Even allowing for the difficult context in which delivery takes place, councils have room for improvement and that improvement is vital to safeguard the hard won and essential trust authorities have built up over time. BDO are passionate about partnering with councils to overcome some of these challenges through benchmarking, data analysis, behaviour change and demand management to provide councils the breathing space they need to focus on improving quality.


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