Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, the Chair of the Conservative backbench Treasury Committee and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
One of Boris’s Johnson’s biggest achievements as Mayor of London is one that is rarely mentioned: he got the trains to run on time. It is an episode worth retelling because there are lessons for the national Government. We all use public services, and too often our experience is worse than it should be. This is not inevitable.
When he was first elected Mayor in 2008, delays on the Underground were endemic and, many people thought, nothing could be done about them. Hundreds of thousands of passengers would routinely get stuck in trains in tunnels for 15 or 20 minutes, which frightened them and made them late. Millions of people every day would set off early on journeys to factor in delays.
It caused massive human misery and was economically damaging. Johnson confronted the Transport Commissioner about it, he said they were doing what they could, and the delays continued.
But delays are basically a choice: a choice by the organisation not to take delays as seriously as passengers do. Although they caused misery to Londoners, passengers had no real alternative, and the delays didn’t cause any real problems to the transport managers.
One of the issues was that no one was clearly responsible for fixing delays. It was everyone’s job and no one’s job. Eventually, after a lot of pressure, Transport for London set up a central team whose single task was to stop delays. Each one was reported to them. They investigated each delay, worked out the root cause and how to make sure it didn’t happen again.
They then made sure the remedies were implemented. They tracked the data, and the frequency and length of delays started steadily falling. London Underground is now very reliable.
Like all MPs, my inbox is full of complaints from constituents struggling with public services. The current debacle over driving tests and passports shows how public organisations can too easily slip into ways of operating that make life easy for the people who work there but cause misery to the people who use them.
From getting hospital appointments to paying repeat prescriptions, from getting pot holes fixed to renewing a parking permit, from registering for VAT to getting a licence – all are too often, all these are more difficult than they should be. I recently had to sort out the estate of my deceased mother, and it was a shocking Kafkaesque nightmare.
The problems with public service standards are increasingly accentuated because private sector companies have used technology to push up service standards, and we are now accustomed to a far greater ease of doing things. Sajid Javid highlighted the divergence when he described the NHS as being a Blockbuster organisation in the age of Netflix.
This is not just a UK problem. A recent survey by McKinsey found a gap between customer satisfaction in the public and private sector in every country that it probed. The gap is wider in the UK than in France, Germany and Canada, though it is wider still in the US. Engage Britain has interesting polling on what people’s experiences are of the NHS, and it is very different from what they think about it politically.
There are many reasons why public service standards lag behind private sector ones. The most fundamental is that usually the public sector is a monopoly – there is only one passport agency – and this removes the incentive to improve services.
Even now, often the only queues in a high street will be at the Post Office, which is the only monopoly. Unlike private companies, Governments have to provide services for everyone, not just certain market niches. Those who design public services rarely consult the public about what they actually want – because consulting takes time, it is uncomfortable to have your own assumptions challenged, and there is a fear the public will ask for too much. Clearly, civil servants know best. Private companies obsess with UX – user experience – which is a key issue for boards and CEOs, but the public sector rarely discusses it. Fundamentally, this is not about limited resources: it is about ways of working.
The misery caused by poor public services is not inevitable. Clearly there has been progress – the new NHS App is pretty impressive, and the Companies House website is good – and public agencies often have service standards, such as response times to queries. But these are patchy and shallow. What we need is a more consistent, deeper public sector wide approach to user experience.
But first, we need to discuss it. Public service standards rarely make headlines or debates in Parliament – except in a real crisis, such as the passports fiasco. Like delays on the tube, the subject is greeted by a collective shrug. It isn’t obvious campaign material, but if the Government takes it seriously, it will show the public we are on their side, and there will be a series of small vote-winning hits. It is also very Conservative, being on the side of the consumer rather than producer.
Like the delays team in the tube, the Government needs to set up a user experience unit in the Cabinet Office, under a minister who has responsibility for improving UX in the public sector. It could set up a user experience advisory panel to challenge and advise the Government. Each department needs to appoint someone – perhaps the Permanent Secretary – as the responsible lead for improving user experience in their services. They need to understand the whole user experience journey, from finding out about a service to confirmation at the end. The Unit report annually to Parliament.
The Cabinet Office UX unit needs to track data across the public sector, based on management information and surveys, to really understand the user journey and where the real crunch points are. It needs to identify the root causes of those crunch points, work with the relevant agency or department to work out how to remedy them, and then make sure that the remedies are mplemented.
It needs to set standards for good service design across the public sector, and ensure that the public is seriously consulted about what it wants from a service when it is being devised. What agencies believe people want is different to what they actually want – US government research suggests users tend to care less about speed of services, and more about understanding the process.
The UX unit needs to identify and tackle the “negative defining moments” – such as being on hold for an hour and then just being cut off – which so tarnish people’s experiences. The McKinsey report suggests that the public sector needs fully to understand the whole user journey to know where to make improvements, how to understand different groups of customers and how the services can be tailored for them.
Other countries have shown what can be done. Estonia revolutionised its tax filing services, so that they can be paid with a single click in under five minutes, and now 98 per cent of people file digitally. In 2013, New South Wales set up a one stop shop to improve user experiences, and customer satisfaction rates went up from 60 per cent to 97 per cent in five years.
We need to get serious about making public services work better for the public. It won’t just be good for the public, but good for appreciation of public sector workers. It can’t be as difficult as getting the trains to run on time.