What does service mean in a public service? How do we know how good it should be, and how do we know whether that is good enough in principle or in practice?

That shouldn’t on the face of it be too hard to work out, but the answer is often more elusive than it first appears. Here for example are some easy questions. How comfortable should the chairs be in a jobcentre? Should they be more or less comfortable than chairs in GP surgeries? And, critically, how do we know whether any suggested answer is the right answer?

simple chair against neutral background

In a recent blog post, Lauren Currie reports a much more challenging and more charged version of the same question:

She believes we deserve beauty in all areas of life. Why isn’t the doctors surgery as nice as a hair salon? I believe the same ‘levels of service’ are deserved in in all areas of life. Why does dining in my local restaurant make me smile and always deliver yet the national health service make me feel stupid and fail to understand my needs?

Perhaps then these are not such easy questions after all.

One set of answers is all to do with choices: there are choices about what to spend on public services, on which services, and on how to distribute money within services. Making such choices is at the heart of what politics is about, and the reason that politics is hard has a lot to do with the relative nature of those choices, as I have argued before. But pretty obviously, that’s only one dimension of the problem. It may be part of the explanation of why hair salons are more congenial places than doctors’ surgeries, but it tells us less about why patients may feel unrecognised and misunderstood by the health service.

Another set of answers is about choice in a different sense. I have more choice about where to get my hair cut than about which GPs surgery to visit. And I have more choice about who I want as my GP than about which jobcentre to go to. Other things being equal, the success of hairdressers depends on more on their ability to attract customers than does the success of GPs, and the success of jobcentres depends on it not at all. But that too ends up being too simplistic: there are still grumpy hairdressers, and there is no shortage of examples of public service delivered with passion and humanity.

There is a third set of answers which at first sight look like no answer at all. Service is what we collectively expect it to be. I don’t mean by that what we individually want it to be: there is no magic force which tweaks a service to our precise desires as we walk through the door, as we all know all too well. But our expectations of what constitutes service and how it should be experienced shift in ways we don’t always notice. Self-service supermarkets and automatic ticket gates at stations each once needed careful explanation in ways which now seen faintly ludicrous. Those service expectations change over time in less obvious ways as well. The way jobcentres (and their predecessors) look have unintended but not accidental parallels with changes in other organisations.

Thirty years ago, both banks and benefit offices put strong physical barriers between staff and those whom they were serving and (albeit in different ways) stressed formality and seriousness over humanity and interaction.

Twenty years ago, banks started to move away from that model – counters were pushed more to the edge, screens got smaller and then often vanished altogether. The differences between front office and back office started to soften, partly because much of the pure back office work was moved elsewhere. Potted plants got larger and and became more important features of the environment

Ten years ago, benefit offices started to move away from that model. All the same things happened, up to and including the recalibration of the significance of potted plants. Some of the immediate reasons for that were very different – though others were very much the same.

My assertion, though, for which I am not aware of the existemce of any evidence, is that somewhere under the surface of many of those design decisions was a set of expectations that emerged from, were reshaped by, were adapted to and were updated and re-created by a broad and amorphous sense of how services should work, not by the experience or expectations of any one service

In that sense, service quality is an emergent property of environment.

Take a seat. It’s as comfortable as we all think it should be.

Picture by Haldane Martin licensed under creative commons CC-BY


  1. Ah yes. Relativity.

    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/08/06/succeed-fail/ – whoever actually said it, the line “it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail” is a powerful one. Flat structures fall apart; hierarchy gives strength. We crap downwards; prisons, job centres, GP surgeries are all readily accepted(?) by society as places where you are more likely to be the statue than the pigeon.

    And then there’s young Prince Hal – having his revelatory moment that if everything were great everywhere, it would all be a bit not great. “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work…”

    So, if quality is an emergent property of environment, it’s pretty inevitable to me that degradation of quality down a hierarchy will also follow. Just to keep everyone happy…that some are not happy.

    He comments, gloomily.

    1. So two separate forces, perhaps.

      The first is your argument that in some sense service experience is a positional good – with the implication that the system will somehow act to increase differentials, ensuring that the statues outnumber the pigeons (however ornithologically implausible that might be).

      The second is the rate and direction of change over time, which is more the focus of the original post. Nobody travels in third class carriages with no roof any more, partly because there is no third class, and partly because there are no trains without roofs. Even those grotty GP surgeries dispense drugs to the poor which not long ago the rich could not buy because they did not exist. That’s not to succumb to some techno-utopian fantasy, but can’t be ignored either.

      One interesting question is then what the product of those two forces amounts to. It may be that the degradation of service down the hierarchy is outweighed by improvements across time, so that everybody experiences improvement. Or maybe not.

      So appropriate levels of gloominess depends on your view of whether peristent relative experience is more important than changing absolute experience.

  2. Human wants and needs come about as the result of various experiences and the overlay of some onto others. A visit to the charming, family run dentist down the road contrasts sharply with the hideous and painfully cold waiting room to get a train – we make link between one and the other and become aware of how they make us feel…sense-making as it ever was and as it will ever be.

    Theories of relativity, yes, but for continuous improvement and the ability to make things better, not because it has to be so. I’m not sure I hold with the idea that some things have to be shitty because only then can we tell what is good, but there’s always something that can be improved.

    As far as our cognitive skills go, some things take time. It takes eight or nine times for a single message to become something we can spontaneously recall. Eight or nine exposures to the same sub-par service provider will trigger an understanding and awareness of what’s missing in much the same way.

    Everyone will notice different things and that’s good because it makes for richer experiences. What I don’t see too much of at the moment is the recognition of the connection between listening, awareness and understanding of latent needs and how people feel about they experiences they have and what to prioritise. Really getting under the skin of the emotional connections is important, for the reasons you’ve mentioned.

    In some places the chairs and pot plants might be gorgeous but if they’re not solving an experiential need at that level they’re still pretty pointless.

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