Government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is the same familiar iconic sentence in which Abraham Lincoln, one of history’s most influential leader, explained that he too was no stranger to the idea of citizen-centricity when it comes to serving people. American and European governments are certainly good at maintaining citizen-centricity, however, the Middle Eastern administrations too had already taken the plunge to serve their citizens better long before. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum fully acknowledges and promulgates the importance of serving citizen, that is if proper governance were to prevail in a country, when he says, “The government is not a power over people. It is a power to serve the people. Therefore, the ultimate government’s success is measured by its citizen satisfaction,” thus immortalizing the true definition of citizen-centricity.

Given that the public sector is the largest service provider in any country, any change in public services drastically impact millions of citizens. From tackling financial sustainability to catching up with globalization, challenges and complications prevail in almost every public sector around the world and every government has its own way of dealing with these difficulties. Nevertheless, when it comes to providing great service, there is still a long way to go for some governments to overcome public skepticism about their citizen-centric orientation.

On the Middle Eastern Front, a recent study titled “Citizen-centric Government” was commissioned by the Dubai Government Summit in collaboration with consultants AT Kearney. The study, which engaged more than 140 of the most progressive public and private organizations in the UAE, revealed that while most understand the advantages of engaging citizens and the private sector, only a few have the right capabilities to translate this into reality. Although 90% of institutions believe in engaging citizens, yet only 25% of them review citizen and private sector feedback on a regular basis. Nonetheless, ‘Developing a citizen-centric government will be crucial to sustaining the country’s economic growth and meeting its goals – and will require some changes to current operational practices,’ the report says. 

Private Sector Gives Public Sector a Tough Grapple for Customer-centricity:

There is no doubt that private sector has raised the bar for customer service and that is exactly why citizens expect the same from governments now. Likewise, public and private sectors in the UAE have disparate characteristics when it comes to customer service, however, it’s the public sector that often bites the dust in this particular area. Private companies are better at serving customers and that is why citizens want public sector organizations to emulate private sector’s practices. Research also shows that today most innovative governments are already building services inspired by both banks and hotels. The report called “Citizen-centric Government” clearly puts forth that in order to become more citizen-centric and agile, the citizens want government entities in the UAE to formulate policies and services geared towards the private sector. Therefore, there is a need for them to be more;

  • proactive
  • personalized
  • service-oriented
  • accountable and willing to accept and react to constructive feedback
  • and have processes and systems that enable citizens and the private sector to contribute to shaping policy and improving public service.

Emphasizing again on emulating the efficiency and quality of services in private sector, Engineer Abdullah Al Kudaim, Executive Director of Engineering Affairs and Housing at the Shaikh Zayed Housing Programme, said that they aim to offer the competence and quality of services like private sector companies, not to mention the housing programme is a department that was evaluated as a high achiever by the Emirates Government Service Excellence Programme.

Given their extreme effectiveness, customer service practices by Facebook, Amazon, etc. have been regularly followed by the public sectors all over the world since the last decade. For instance, public sector is very keen on taking up live chat and social media to solve customers’ issues today. Moreover, government agencies are also collaborating with private sector to support best practices for greater efficiency, effectiveness, consistency and first contact resolution. Thousands of government employees are being trained on how to deal professionally, skillfully and efficiently with even the toughest customer interactions and these practices would certainly restore citizens’ confidence in public institutions for better customer service.

Citizen-centric Initiatives by the Public Sector in the UAE:

  • Undercover officials carried out surprise inspections, which were a part of programme called “Mystery Shopper”. According to Lieutenant Colonel Nasser Khadem Al Ka’abi, Director of Customer Services at the ministry, this programme incredibly helped the Interior Ministry improve its services. He said that more than 2,000 visits, 1,000 phone calls and 600 website visits were done to check the quality of services.
  • In 2011, “Emirates Government Service Excellence Programme” was launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai to enhance the quality of federal government services to the public so as to reach new levels of customer service with uniform quality across the country. The programme regularly awards the centers that provide government services, while also aiming for them to reach excellence in the provision of government services. It also includes a group of criteria and methodologies by which all staff will be trained in order to refine their skills and develop their abilities to attain good service levels.

Other governments have also been consistently putting customer satisfaction as their focal point. For example, Canadian Government has some strict standards for government service, where 5 to 9 minutes is the maximum time for customers to wait in any lineup at a government office. The maximum number of people employees can deal with in one time should not exceed two. 30 seconds is an acceptable amount of time to wait on hold on the phone before speaking to the customer. Obama administration is all about directly interacting with citizens, listening to their concerns and co-creating public policies.

Ramifications of Failed Citizen-centricity:

There are times when service demands exceed the resources of the government, which might also take the fiscal pressure up a notch. Nevertheless, despite the various encumbrances that governments usually have to face as service providers, their role is also expanding in many parts of the world, a fact that calls for citizen-centricity to be highly prioritized. On the other hand, taking into account constituents’ general opinion of customer service levels in the public sector worldwide, Peppers & Rogers Group founder, Don Peppers emphasizes, “Today, citizens are losing trust in their governments. Improvements in the way that citizens interact with government agencies will go a long way towards strengthening the relationship and building trust.”

Apart from loss of trust, failure to implement citizen-centricity could result in “huge future economic costs driven by difficulty to sustain competiveness and a decrease in foreign direct investments, says the UAE report called “Citizen-centric Government”. Nevertheless, it is imperative to have right organization, culture, processes and systems in place, so that government entities can continue achieving positive growth, competitiveness and strategic goals.

Setting Public Sector in Right Direction for Better Customer Service:

Following are some of the trends prevalent in governments worldwide for providing better service to the citizens and these very trends also serve as the right recommendation for the UAE’s public sector to follow.

A. Integrated Governance: The Connected Government:

Integrated governance involves cross Ministry collaboration where government entities work together to provide integrated services across several ministries and thus make the service mechanism more efficient across the whole government. Integrated public service allows better sharing of expertise and knowledge and also helps public service become more focused on broader citizen-centered outcomes.

According to a white paper called “Integrated Public Service Delivery: Achieving Efficiency While Delivering Exceptional Constituent Experiences”, published by Peppers & Rogers Group in 2010, governments can fully meet growing constituent needs through integrated public service delivery, a thoroughly citizen-centric strategy. “The answer is an integrated approach to service delivery. Government entities must cooperate and collaborate to integrate services and channels in order to offer a single view,” explains the paper’s author, Ludovic Tiberghien. Although much thought and careful planning might go into integrated governance, yet its benefits are beyond powerful. As put forth by Peppers & Rogers Group report, the upsides are;

      • Increased service efficiencies (e.g, one-stop resolution for combinations of services)
      • Simplified procedures (e.g., information sharing across agencies to pre-fill application forms)
      • Reduced delivery cost (e.g., migration toward online services)
      • Rationalized front and back offices (e.g. simplification and reduction of redundancies)
      • Increased impact of marketing and communication initiatives (e.g., customization per segment for specific life events and needs)
      • Increased employee productivity through alignment of performance with training.

In order to make integration really work, government can take steps to improve dialogue between the departments and agencies to address any fragmentation and disconnect that may exist. Networks can be used to increase this proximity, where e-government and ICTs (Information and communication technologies) are already reinforcing information sharing, and the real focus ought to be on outcomes rather than the inputs. “Citizen’s expectations have changed,” explains the paper’s author, Peppers & Rogers Group’s Ludovic Tiberghien. “People are experiencing improvements in customer experience across every channel and every industry. They will no longer tolerate disconnected, inefficient systems from their government agencies. The good news is that with an integrated approach, new technologies and processes are available to improve service and satisfaction and increase efficiency as well.” Moreover, in order to develop the competencies of the generalist staff, governments have to have greater mobility among departments.

B. Public-Private Partnerships (PPP):

According to Deloitte, PPP refers to “cooperation between public authorities and the private sector to finance, construct, renovate, manage, operate or maintain an infrastructure or service. At their core, all PPPs involve some form of risk sharing between the public and private sector – to provide the infrastructure or service. The allocation of sizable and, at times significant, elements of risk to the private partner is key in distinguishing a PPP from the more traditional public sector model of public service delivery.” Public-Private Partnership is one of the many tools that governments can use to develop services and infrastructure, where risk allocation is done in accordance with each sector’s capability to manage it. Nevertheless, in the customer service realm, both sectors can certainly reap mutual benefits from such partnerships as the innovative practices of specialists in private sector could allow provision of high-quality services.

“With the right circumstances, PPPs can be winning partnerships; governments meet obligations without debt, the public receives better or more services, and the private sector is presented with a wider market,” explained Richard Shediac, partner at Booz & Company.

Some of the advantages of Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) are as follows:

      • Public services become more diverse and innovative
      • These partnerships can lead to value creation as there occurs an integration and cross transfer of public and private sector skills, knowledge and expertise
      • Citizens as taxpayers legitimately get value for their money as there is proper risk management
      • Delivery of services becomes faster, more efficient and most of all, cost-effective
      • Performance incentive management and prevalence of regulatory regime enables accountability for the provision and delivery of superior public services
      • The state assets are utilized effectively , which largely benefits citizens, the very users of public services.

C. Prevalence of Service-oriented Culture at Workplace:

In order to do right things for the constituents, developing a strong service culture at workplace is extremely important . Training and empowering employees, keeping their morale high and engaging them through incentivisation, all these factors lead to employees having a strong “service mindset”. Moreover, it would best to avoid bureaucratic culture, which often ensues when organizations operate to suit their own needs instead of customers’, whereas it is the customers’ preferences and requirements that should direct the service.

At the11th GCC Government Shared Services Centres and eServices Quality Excellence Conference, Suhail bin Tarraf, chief executive of Tanfeeth said that a cultural change was needed over how both the private and public sectors deal with customers and that many organizations have to rethink their approach. “Regional companies can only deliver services in line with global best practices when employees are empowered to do what they do, keeping in mind the impact on the end customer. In a truly customer-centric organisation, every employee internalizes the company’s vision and mission, and begins to think like the organisation,” he said.

Mr. Tarraf emphasized the importance of proper training saying that” A lot of organizations see training staff as a cost rather than an investment. He particularly emphasized the need for better trained staff in call centers and how it can help resolve customer complaints and problems quickly. “Developing human resources is the most vital aspect in delivering good services. The process should not begin after a person is employed, but employees should be hired after carefully examining their innovative skills and desire to develop skills by learning,” said Al Kudaim, Executive Director of Engineering Affairs and Housing at the Shaikh Zayed Housing Programme.

The US government had a tough performance management regime, referred to as “forced ranking” or “yank and rank” by the Americans. According to this system, the bottom 10% of civil servants had to face dismissal within a year if they failed to improve. However, it proved to be too stifling for organizations to nurture a service-oriented culture. Poor performers should be managed better, not just ignored or sacked, and proper training is a surefire way to make up for that.

D. The E-Government: Taking Up the Technological Route:

Today, not only the citizens are more empowered and informed but are also increasingly interactive. Therefore, while thinking on the lines of serving the growing ‘Arab Digital Generation’ (the digitally savvy young people), MENA governments have become more emphatic of e-government programs since the last decade. These programs are largely driven by the national economic agendas of modernization and diversification. According to forbesmiddleesat.com, “In recent years, governments in the MENA region have developed e-government programs that are aimed at streamlining the delivery of public services and helping leaders better engage with their constituents – businesses, citizens, or visitors. In effect, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all launched noteworthy e-government programs and continuously implement strategic updates to take into consideration emerging constituents’ needs.”

Ahmad bin Humaidan, Director-General of Dubai eGovernment, announced the department’s commitment to the instructions of Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council. He said: “Shaikh Mohammed’s initiative is based on the leadership’s keenness on customer satisfaction through round-the-clock government services using the latest technologies based on a clear understanding of their needs, while leveraging the mobile phone; which has become one of the most widespread devices in the world.”

On another occasion, Eman Mohammad Al Suwaidi, Director of Dubai Model Centre at the General Secretariat of the Executive Council of Dubai said, “The Dubai model is based on two values – customer centricity and service efficiency. Placing the customer at the center is crucial in the success of any government.” “We are keen on engaging with the citizens using new technologies too to improve services. This is a relatively new area but there is tremendous progress being made,” Eman said. Besides she also stressed on the need to focus on front-line employees and capacity-building efforts.

The significance of e-Government initiatives has already been acknowledged worldwide. For example, United Kingdom’s Cabinet highlighted e-Government’s potential benefits to citizens as it would give rise to wider choice of channels, convenience, more personal service, greater awareness of services and policies and greater democratic participation and openness.

Moreover, social media presents a new opportunity for governments to interact with the public. Social media enables interactive information sharing and collaboration between government officials and the public. The social soapboxes give internet savvy public a place to express their views on civic and administrative issues. Nevertheless, governments can turn this into an interactive and two-way communication channel to solve citizens’ issues.

In US’s Open Government Initiative, the use of social media has been strongly featured as a means to connect with the public with a particular focus on facilitating dialogue between the USDA and the public.

Another useful channel that e-government can benefit from is live chat support. With 24/7 live chat availability on their websites, governments can proactively assist the citizens with their issues. Citizens can discuss their enquiries, suggestions or complaints directly with a customer service representative through a chat interface. Abu Dhabi’s eGovernment Portal already offers live chat, thus facilitating communication with government’s contact centre.

Other governments have also been very active on taking up live chat so as to listen to their citizens. In 2010, Adelaide City Council has become the first capital city council in Australia to use a web-based chat function to communicate with the public in real-time. The same year, the Virginia Department of Taxation deployed Web chat to communicate with customers.

E. Involving Citizens In Decision-Making::

Improvement in customer service comes through if there is a continuous evaluation of what is done and this can be truly enabled with insight into the citizens’ mindsets. Input and cooperation of citizens is being increasingly seen as a means to improve the development, production, and delivery of public services. Various private sector organizations owe their success to such co-delivery initiatives. Public engagement in planning and delivery of public policy and services can help governments understand people’s needs and devise much better services. Experts strongly favor citizen engagement for public service reform. Public-inclusive policy-making offers a way for governments to work directly with citizens. Therefore, there is a greater promise of making concrete improvements in the quality of services.

Based on the above-mentioned trends that prevail in most governments worldwide, there should be:

  • More emphasis on e-government initiatives, so as to further expand digital and personalized services as citizens are digitally savvy today
  • Implementation of new models of governance i.e. integrated governance should prevail so that skills, knowledge and best practices could be shared across every agency department and ministry
  • Greater adoption of multiparty service solutions i.e. public and private service providers working together
  • Increase in citizen engagement for co-design so that services are devised in accordance with their preferences
  • Prevalence of customer-centric culture at offices so that employees become more engaged to solve customers’ issues.