Consumer engagement in public service design and delivery – Why? How?
The Christie Commission put the service user/consumer interest at its heart and the relentless pressure on public sector finances continues to drive further transformational service reform. We are now seeing structural reforms that are integrating different services or sharing services across new geographical boundaries. And new delivery models continue to emerge with third sector partners. But there is a real risk that the user voice will get lost in the processes of organisational change and new accountabilities.
“Reforms must aim to empower individuals and communities receiving public services by involving them in the design and delivery of the services they use.” The Christie Commission
Consumer Engagement – Why?
Efficient and effective public services recognise that the expectations of those who use their services need to be raised rather than managed, that consumers and communities are the solution not the problem, and that a bottom up approach to involving them, in design and delivery, brings success that is sustainable.
In the context of funding cuts and external pressures, early engagement with consumers in service design and delivery becomes more, not less, important.It is essential that consumers understand why decisions are being made and feel that their views have been taken into account. It is essential that consumers understand why decisions are being made and feel that their views have been taken into account. While engagement cannot eliminate the anger that some consumers will feel if services are reduced or removed it can build trust and alleviate concerns around public services and privatised industries not listening to the views of consumers.
Involving service users in decision-making allows them to understand the constraints of resources and any restrictions, and the impact this can have upon the service.
“Public services are most effective and provide best value for money when users have a pivotal role in designing and evaluating them. Evidence indicates that better, more sustainable outcomes and higher levels of satisfaction for users and staff also results.” The Christie Commission
Good quality engagement is more about a different way of approaching decision-making rather than creating additional projects for their own sake. Better decisions make better, more efficient services and getting it right in the first place prevents complaints and saves money. Furthermore, services built around consumers will make for satisfied consumers. And involving people builds trust in the decision-making process and enhances patience and understanding when things do go wrong.
Quality engagement also means that information about the service and how it is communicated is better, leading to more accurate expectations, less confusion by consumers and less complaints.
Consumer Engagement – How?
Firstly, change the mindset which says that service reform or rationalisation means reduced services rather than better services.
Then, understand and appreciate that Involving individual consumers and service users in shaping services is entirely different from involving communities – both are essential but each will have different, but not mutually exclusive, expectations and experiences.
The definition of what comprises a community can be complex and defined in a range of different ways but largely as a result of geography or by interest. Geographically defined communities are not homogenous and their views have to collectively take into account, and balance, a range of divergent interests including those of consumers, citizens, businesses, faith groups, road users, single issue groups, environmentalists etc. Communities of interest, on the other hand, will be able to represent a single constituency on a collective basis but they are harder to define geographically and service providers will face real challenges in identifying and engaging with the full range of interest groups within their area.
It is essential that public service providers rise to these challenges, recognising that the role of communities in the design and delivery of services will always be different from that of individuals. The collective interest can and should play a key role in what services are to be provided, where they should be located and how they should best reflect the needs of the community as a collective constituency i.e. structural reform. However, what that cannot do is ensure that the individual interface and relationship with the consumer, as the service user, and the service provider is geared to the user’s needs throughout his or her journey through the service. That journey may run from assessing individual need to designing the service to meet that need, extending to the role of frontline staff in delivering a user-focused outcome. A clear example of this is in health where the interests of patients, as people with individual conditions, are very different from those of the wider public.
While very different, the collective and individual interests are not mutually exclusive. Public service providers need to consider both, with all engagement tailored to purpose and audience.
Consumer Focus Scotland set out high level principles for good practice in consumer engagement.
1) Aim to make a difference
Clarity of purpose is critical. If you are not clear about the outcomes you are trying to achieve, then it is likely that the engagement methods you use to get there will be the wrong ones. Cloudiness of purpose does nothing to build or enhance consumer confidence or consumer trust.
You need to be clear about the scope of what you are asking. Be honest about all of the limitations and restraints (don’t shirk from telling people the realities of a situation such as costs and the true options for change).
You need to openly commit to listening to consumers’ views and acting on the information. That commitment must be visible to consumers and it needs to come from the very top: leadership and culture change are critical.
If you are to ensure maximum impact then you need to engage early. Consumers need to know that their involvement affects decisions as they are being developed, rather than being asked to rubber stamp a ‘tick-box’, ‘after-the-event’ exercise.
2) Know your consumers
Effective engagement needs to go beyond existing service users, customers and clients, and identify all those affected by your decisions. You need to reach out to people who cannot access what you are offering but would like to, or indeed, need to. It is also essential that you engage with those who could be potentially using your service in the future – sometimes critical trade-offs have to be made in meeting the needs of current and future consumers. Building these conversations into ongoing engagement aids transparency and accountability for the basis of sometimes difficult decision-making.
The same principles apply to challenging or hard to reach groups. Trusted intermediary bodies are a key way of reaching out to seldom heard or “hidden” consumers.
3) Choose appropriate methods
If you are engaging with diverse groups then it goes without saying that you need to tailor your engagement to your audience. There is a wide range of engagement, participation and research techniques and there is no one-size fits all approach with the diversity of the consumer experience. Make sure that what you are doing is appropriate for consumers and for the decision being made.
4) Make engagement accessible
In practical terms, make sure that all of your written information is accessible in terms of format and content. And do not exclude people by relying on one medium, particularly online media – the digital divide still exists.
It is very important, and it will guarantee more success, if you go to “where people are” e.g. local churches, neighbourhood groups, playgroups. And make sure venues are accessible and acceptable to consumers. You need to provide support to help consumers engage e.g. expenses, child care.
Above all, have two way, open channels for communication and: try and make it fun!
5) Keep consumers informed
You will not take people with you, building confidence and trust, if you do not keep them in the loop throughout, no matter how long a project or process.
And it is absolutely critical to keep consumers informed of decisions taken as a result of their involvement, and on what happened after that. We know that consumers are motivated to get involved if they think that doing so will make a difference for others.
6) Continually improve practice
Evaluate inputs, process, outputs and outcomes and start planning how you will do that from the very beginning. Consumers will want to see evidence that you have learnt from success, and failure, and that their input has made that difference – they will want to see evidence that good practice and learning has been rolled out across the organisation and beyond to other organisations.
Some extra points to note
Treat, and recognise, service users and consumers as experts – they are valuable sources of knowledge and intelligence.
Simple methods can be just as effective. This is not always about complex issues such as service integration or personalisation. An effective consumer engagement process in, for example, bin collecting or recycling could have a real impact on driving down complaints in that area.
Building the capacity of staff and service users leads to more productive involvement. But you need appropriate training and development for both.
Early intervention and prevention is also important. There can often be too much focus on involvement of consumers/service users to deal with the symptoms of problems rather than dedicating resources to prevention and early intervention. Engaging service users in preventing issues arising is more useful and, over time, a better use of resources.
And finally, be consistent. Consistency and alignment of priorities and standards across the whole service or organisation, rather than for different departments, increases consumer confidence and trust.