Controversial Idea #1

What I am about to say may be controversial to some people but stay with me because it comes from a desire to get better service for users of public services and not as a crusade to do away with the state.

This week I had a problem with a new product I’ve just bought and I needed to find a solution.  The product in question had a simple, clear website and it gave me the options of calling or emailing their customer loyalty team in order to find out the answer.  I could have also connected with someone live on their site via Skype or Instant Messaging.  In the end I decided to email my question and within two minutes I had received an email back with a reference number for my query and within five minutes I had received another email with the answer by someone called Mandy who might have been in Dunfermline or Delhi.  She also suggested some other website links I might find useful and said to get in touch again should I have any more queries.

Now contrast this with me trying to find out some information from local government recently.  First of all the council website in question looked like it had been created by someone who had learned website design in the mid 90’s.  The council didn’t have an online help forum or a customer contact email.  If I wanted to find out about something I only had only one option, to call.  Oh and I could only call between 8.45am-4pm Monday to Friday.

This is a classic case of a service being designed by the provider for the benefit of the provider and not the customer.  It also got me thinking about other customer service features I use with my bank, telephone provider and favourite clothes retailer.  In all these cases I can communicate with a customer service person 24/7 and at a time that suits me, the customer.  How can these organisations provide such quick and constant service for their customers?  Surely it must cost a fortune?

Well most of these companies use international outsourcing and frankly I don’t care if I speak to someone in the next town or a different country as long as they fix my problem.

But surely a local council couldn’t use international outsourcing?  Why not?  In business I use services like Elance and all the time for everything from admin & research jobs to procurement & phone support.  Teachers in the US are using outsourced University educated graduates in India to assess, grade and comment on students assignments so they can spend more time teaching and preparing class lessons.

Now using intelligent outsourcing will never replace some of the key services that public servants provide but I wonder how much time those same workers spend on things that deliver real value to their customers and how much of their day is taken up with tasks that could be outsourced?

Here are just a couple of things that could be outsourced (note that this list comes from a government website aimed at businesses):

Processes you could consider outsourcing include:

  • IT functions – you can outsource most IT functions, from network management to project work, website development and data warehousing. You may benefit from the latest technology and software upgrades without having to invest in expensive systems or keep up with industry trends.
  • Business processes and HR – outsourcing activities such as recruitment, payroll and secretarial services gives you access to specialist skills, but you only pay when you need to use them.
  • Finance – you already outsource auditing, so why not do the same with your entire accounting function, including bookkeeping, tax management and invoicing?
  • Sales and marketing – many organisations use a consultant or an agency to handle marketing communications – smaller businesses, or those in specialised markets, can also outsource sales to specialist agencies.
  • Health and safety – there are consultants who specialise in health and safety compliance tasks. They may be able to ensure you meet all the requirements, including those for complex risks, more cost-effectively than you can.

The first attack on such an idea would be ‘but outsourcing would mean using someone in India or Spain instead of a worker in the local area’.  It depends really on two things:

* Most of the outsourcing sites have lots of UK based individual freelancers and companies registered on them.  Indeed I recently put a data processing job on one of these sites and ended up hiring someone based in Liverpool because I valued her experience and knowledge of English even though she was slightly more expensive than her Indian or Canadian competitors.  I subsequently found out she is a mother of two who likes the flexibility of being able to combine caring for her young family with bringing in money doing freelance admin work.

* I would rather use intelligent outsourcing to compliment the work that council workers are doing.  I am sure there must be ways of using these kinds of ideas to free up staff from repetitive, non-value adding work so they can spend more time on delivering the high quality public services we expect.

Another attack that would be levied against such an idea is that the provision of public services is too complex for outsourcing.  Really?  So do you think that banking and retailing aren’t complex businesses?  Both use outsourcing to different extents and both use it to deliver greater value to their customers.

In the case of procurement Jeff and the team at Better Nation have also been pointing to developments with things like Simpl .

However this post should be taken in the spirit it is written in, inquisitively looking for ideas and answers.

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