Report for the State Services Commission by UMR Research, December 2008. The Executive Summary of this report is published below. The FULL REPORT (224 pages), is attached above as a single PDF file, and also as three smaller files. See also: Understanding the Drivers - Summary Report .

Executive Summary

Findings from this research are based on 40 focus groups (around 8 people per group) were held in urban, provincial and rural locations around New Zealand. Groups were held with general public, Māori, Asian, Pacific People and Young People respondents. The groups were held between 30 April and 3 July 2008.

Overview

To improve satisfaction in the Public Service consideration should be given to placing a priority on ensuring front-line staff have a strong customer/solutions focus. The ability to understand people's needs, to be knowledgeable enough to meet those needs where possible and to be able to communicate and explain things appropriately to people so they understand are fundamental. This may also require the Public Service to be sensitive to a range of cultural and second language needs. Improvements in these areas and giving effect to the Public Service standards of integrity and conduct is likely to lead to substantial improvements in satisfaction in public services.

To improve trust in the Public Service is more challenging. Improving satisfaction and increasing awareness of the Public Service standards of integrity and conduct, including clear demonstration of accountability, may improve levels of trust. Respondents believe it is important that swift and decisive action is taken to address issues when these standards have not been upheld. However, there are other influences on trust. Negative media reports of high profile issues as well as stereotypes of public servants can also influence trust and be prevalent for many years, despite positive personal experiences.

Improvements to overall expectations can only be objectively measured if service standards are set, so staff know what is expected of them and the public are aware of the standards they can expect to receive. Key services standards, such as realistic and achievable response times should be set and be publicly available to ensure expectations are transparent and there is accountability for fulfilling them. This will help ensure that public servants do what they say they will do.

While the Internet and telephone may provide more cost efficient ways of providing public services, face-to-face contact is generally the most preferred and trusted channel. Telephone service standards are often criticised and on-line interactions will need to be capable of meeting more complex requirements before the public are satisfied and confident about using them more frequently.

The drivers of satisfaction

- The most important driver for the general public, Asian and Young People group was The service experience met your expectations. The driver covers almost any contact or experience an individual has with a public service and links to all other satisfaction drivers. Ensuring front-line staff have a strong customer-focus, such as, being able to listen and understand an individual's needs and being knowledgeable of their organisation's services are critical. The ability to be sensitive to people's needs and to be able to communicate with them in a way that they understand are also important. For public service managers it will be important to manage public expectations in terms of what can reasonably be achieved. Attention to these issues is likely to improve satisfaction with public services.

- The driver Staff were competent flows from the previous driver, that is, competent staff are those who meet expectations. Thus, improvements to this driver will occur if front-line staff have a strong customer/solution focus, are knowledgeable and are good communicators. It is important for staff to be able to listen, understand needs, explain processes and inform people about their entitlements.

- In terms of the driver Your individual circumstances were taken into account respondents said they feel as if they are treated 'as a number', yet they believe their circumstances are unique and in some instances involve a complex set of interconnected interactions with public services. The circumstances that respondents think are most important to take into account are individual disabilities and household circumstances, particularly for families on low incomes or are under pressure for other reasons. Improvements to this driver will occur if front-line staff take the time to listen and understand each individual's situation and have systems in place to manage more complex issues, especially those that involve more than one public service agency. The development of some flexibility for staff within reasonable guidelines to recognise individual circumstances would also be helpful.

- The driver You were treated fairly has a lot of over-lap with the previous driver as there is an expectation that all people should be treated according to their needs and these are dependent on an individual's circumstances. The driver is more complex than many others because respondents interpret it in several different ways. Fair treatment can be understood as being non-judgmental and respectful in dealing with people guided by the aphorism 'treat me as you would want to be treated.' Being treated fairly can also mean receiving a quality of service that is expected. It can also mean being treated justly, so that people in similar circumstances are treated the same. For some Māori, being treated fairly has special significance linked to injustices that have occurred since the Treaty of Waitangi which have implications for expectations of public services today. This was also the most important driver for Maori.

- The need for follow-through by staff is particularly relevant to the driver Staff kept their promises - that is, they did what they said they would do. Of all the drivers, this is the one that is most likely to damage trust in public services as doing what you say you will do was regarded as a verbal contract particularly by Māori and Pacific People respondents. The best way to improve this driver is to for public servants to do what they say they will do. For managers, it will be important to establish service delivery expectations that staff can deliver on and to ensure staff are well informed about them, so unrealistic expectations are not made. Any failures to meet a promise should be accompanied by an apology, and an explanation about what happened and what has been done to ensure it does not recur.

- The satisfaction driver that stood out as quite distinct from the rest was It's an example of good value for tax dollars spent. When respondents were asked to give examples of other drivers they easily cited personal examples. However, with this driver the predominant examples given were not personal experiences, but generic services of a particular type. Some respondents found it particularly difficult to assess 'value' without clear, quantitative data. Other respondents said that if their service expectations are met that will demonstrate good value for money. This is consistent with the sense of accountability that some respondents attach to the driver, for instance, when the phrase 'I pay taxes, I expect a certain level of service' is used. However, the most common way of explaining what was good value for tax dollars spent was to identify examples of core public services, like health, education, and those important to public safety and security. These services were considered to be 'free', that is, they were not paid for directly by individuals and available to all. Frontline public servants in these services were generally seen to be highly committed, despite being under-funded and working in stressful situations. Improvements to this driver are likely to result from increasing public awareness of the extent of the work departments do, meeting service expectations and the availability of financial data that demonstrates where tax dollars are spent.

- The satisfaction driver They [public servants] admitted responsibility when they made mistakes is unique to Pacific People and, as such, was only explored in these groups. The majority of Pacific People reported that they had not experienced this. On the rare occasion that it had been experienced, it sent a powerful signal of respect that Pacific People appreciated. Public servants may need to be more aware that Pacific People, particularly first generation migrants, tend to have low levels of confidence and knowledge in dealing with New Zealand public services. As a result, they are less likely to question when a mistake may have been made, suggesting the need for public servants to be more pro-active in checking for mistakes. As in the case of broken promises, there is an expectation that mistakes should be acknowledged, apologised for and full explanations given.

- The satisfaction driver You were aware of what to do every step of the process is also unique to Pacific People. There is a need to recognise that for some, particularly first generation Pacific People, there may be shame felt in admitting to not understanding something. Public servants need to be conscious of this and explain things as simply as possible, ideally in the first language of the individual. The provision of information programmes through community networks and working through close friends and family as intermediaries will go some way to helping people to be better informed. Such initiatives would be equally applicable to first generation Asians for whom English is a second language and those who have low levels of confidence in dealing with public services in general.

The drivers of trust

- This research shows that a person's trust in the Public Service is largely based on perceptions. Respondents' views were strongly influenced by media reports and anecdotal accounts as well as stereotypes of the Public Service which may be a product of an earlier time. Trust is therefore more difficult to earn. While levels of trust may improve over a longer period of time as satisfaction with personal experiences improve, other influences, such as, media reports and stereotypes mean that improving trust will remain a challenge.

- The most important trust driver is You have confidence that public servants do a good job. The driver has strong links to the satisfaction drivers The service experience met your expectations and Staff were competent. Improving the competency of staff in a way that better meets service expectations will therefore improve trust that public servants do a good job. Key competencies to focus on are to ensure staff are helpful, knowledgeable, listen, understand and are customer/solutions focused.

- In general, respondents saw significant overlap between the satisfaction driver You were treated fairly and its companion trust driver, Public servants treat people fairly. Respondents tended to bring up personal experiences, as opposed to general perceptions, when discussing this driver. As a result, the sorts of things that are likely to improve the satisfaction driver may improve the trust driver, such as, treating people non-judgmentally.

- Respondents also saw considerable overlap between the satisfaction driver Staff kept their promises - that is they did what they said they would do and the trust driver The Public Service keeps its promises, that is, it does what it says it will do. Again, improvements which apply to the satisfaction driver, such as, ensuring public servants do what they say they will do and managing realistic expectations, are likely to improve levels of trust in this driver.

- The driver The Public Service provides services that meet your needs is somewhat more complex as it is understood in two different, but not mutually exclusive ways. At one level, 'your needs' are interpreted as personal and refer to meeting service expectations, such as, being listened to and understood by public servants with the knowledge to help. This means that improving trust may be improved if Public Service meets service expectations. However, 'your needs' is also understood in a more universal sense for society as a whole. In that case, trust may improve if it is perceived that essential core services, such as, those that provide health, education, safety and security are met. This is why, for example, negative media stories about service shortcomings in these areas can weaken trust.

- The trust driver The Public Service provides you with all information you need is unique to Māori and as such was only explored in these groups. The meaning of this driver was frequently illustrated by reference to not being provided with full information to entitlements. The driver was also explained in terms of difficulty understanding how 'the system works' and insufficient explanations for decisions. Improvements to levels of trust in this driver may result from a strong focus on treating people as individuals, taking time to understand their needs and being able to communicate and explain things in a simple and clear manner.

- There is strong support for the Public Service's standards of integrity and conduct to be well publicised so the public can hold staff accountable for them. There is very limited awareness of the standards and there is a perception gap between the words and the delivery at present. Although these standards are used for internal purposes, respondents felt it would be important for there to be increased awareness of them among the public because they said it would lead to greater accountability.

- There is a perception that the Public Service does not tend to admit responsibility for its mistakes. There is also a perception that high profile breaches of ethics by senior public servants are indicative of further problems that have not seen the light of day. It is important that action is taken swiftly to address breaches.

Unique perspectives

- Māori, Asian and Pacific People respondents stress the need for cultural sensitivity. Perceptions of racism are voiced across these three populations.

- Some Māori view fair treatment by the Public Service through the lens of past injustices from a failure to honour the Treaty of Waitangi. This can lead to a blurring of perceptions of the role of the Crown, government and the Public Service.

- When dealing with Māori the Public Service need to be sensitive to whakama (shame or embarrassment), which may prevent some Māori from accessing the services they are entitled to. This may be because they are too ashamed to admit their knowledge is lacking and to save face will simply say they understand when in fact they do not. A similar issue exists for some Pacific People, particularly those who have migrated or for whom English is a second language.

- First generation Pacific People tend to demonstrate a lack of confidence in dealing with public services. There appears to be a need for widely used public services to communicate through the Pacific People's community channels to build understanding and trust in using these services.

- Pacific People and Asian respondents who have migrated tend to assess the merits of New Zealand's public services against their own international experiences. Generally, the New Zealand public services compare favourably.

- Asian respondents appear to place more stress on speed and efficiency of services as important aspects of meeting their expectations.

- Asian respondents interpreted staff competency differently to other groups, tending to view it as implying outstanding as opposed to somewhat above average service which was the interpretation given by other groups.

- Young People appear to have a stronger preference for on-line service delivery and school aged students place a premium on being treated with respect. The speed of service is more important for the youngest respondents than for other groups.

- Rural-provincial dwellers perceive unfairness is demonstrated by the relative lack of public services available to them locally. The most trusted channel, face-to-face contact is less likely to be readily available, so there is more reliance on the phone. However, as this report shows, the most frustrating channel is the phone. This may be a more pronounced issue for rural-provincial people. They also have concerns about access to emergency services and dislike centralised call-centres being unaware of local place names.

Perceptions of the Public Service

- Perceptions of the Public Service can generally be placed into four broad categories covering the type of relationship the public have with it, the dominant traits of the service, the quality of services it provides and the role it plays in society. The extent to which individuals perceive the Public Service in each of these categories can have a direct bearing on their expectations of public services and the way they interact with them.

- Some respondents characterised their relationship with the Public Service as very powerful relative to themselves and some feel threatened as a result.

- Respondents perceived the Public Service as complex, closed, difficult to deal with, and rule-bound. Positive traits associated with the Public Service included being helpful, culturally sensitive and accessible.

- The Public Service is generally perceived to provide poorer quality services than the private sector. Respondents reported that the Public Service lacked a strong customer focus and did not appear to be accountable to the public it serves. As the sole provider of many services to the public respondents felt they had little ability to influence service improvements. These perceptions appeared to reinforce feelings of disempowerment.

- A small number of respondents had a more benign impression of the Public Service reflecting their view of its role as a provider of services including essential services that everyone needs.

Last modified: