Public sector organisations have never been famous for customer centricity. Given their origins, that is perhaps not surprising. But times are changing. Today, citizens and businesses expect public sector organisations to treat them like customers. And our research suggests many public sector institutions are rising to the challenge.

Putting the citizen at the centre

In today's customer-centric environment, it is consumers – not brands – that hold all the power. Those that offer the most customer-centric experience tend to win in their chosen markets and segments.

While that has been true in competitive sectors for some time, the monopolistic nature of public sector[1] organisations has largely shielded them from the need to deliver true 'customer' experiences. Tax authorities didn't care how complicated the process was for taxpayers as long as the taxes were paid. Hospitals didn't worry about how patients felt about their surgeries, only that they had good outcomes. Road crews worked when and where they wanted.

Now, however, citizen expectations of the public sector have changed. Dutch consumers no longer see public sector organisations as 'authority figures' but rather as 'service providers' whose job it is to deliver good public services. They expect their public institutions to deliver the same level of experience they get from private companies.

At the same time, many public sector organisations are starting to realise that securing compliance from citizens (which the public sector requires in order to be efficient and successful) demands they become more citizen-centric. If they want citizens to participate, they need to get them engaged. 

Take tax reporting, for example. The more complicated the process, the more likely taxpayers are to make mistakes or (worse) not pay at all. That is why the Dutch Tax Authority has been developing an app that allows users to pre-populate as much information as possible upfront, thereby making the process easier and less frustrating. Consumers agree; the Dutch Tax Authority has seen its rankings under the Time & Effort Pillar improve each year.

Go public with it

The good news is that Dutch public sector organisations are having notable success engaging their customers. Cities, for example, are making great effort to deliver the best possible services to their populations.

The City of Rotterdam, for instance, actively engages with residents to come up with ways to make the city more climate adaptive – part of its effort to keep making the city a great place to live. Many municipalities are improving service delivery through digital services, gaining significant enthusiasm from online citizens engaged on a range of topics from the quality of pavements through to the collection of waste.

True: our research shows that public sector organisations continue to lag behind private sector brands in terms of Customer Experience Excellence. In fact, none of the public sector organisations included in our research were ranked in the Top 100 in this year's research. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

Yet there is more to the story. Public sector average CEE scores increased year-over-year from 6,5 to 6,7. A number of public sector brands also saw significant increases in their individual scores.

Consider CJIB, for example. The organisation essentially collects fines from citizens. Yet, despite this thankless task, CJIB has demonstrated real progress in their personal approach and management of expectations. While CJIB remains towards the back of the pack in the rankings, the brand recorded the biggest improvement overall, jumping from a score of 5,8 in 2019 to a score of 6,2 this year. A job well done!

COVID-19 sharpens minds

In part, Dutch appreciation for public sector organisations likely reflects the resolute actions taken by many public sector organisations through the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, many public organisations stood out for putting the 'customer' first.

The healthcare sector's dedication and compassion was inspirational during the initial crisis. The Dutch Tax Authority helped support small businesses by postponing the collection of VAT. The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) helped entrepreneurs apply for special loans and grants. Most Dutch citizens have been fairly proud of the way their Government has communicated – both nationally and internationally – through the pandemic.

This, in turn, has encouraged significant reflection about how government and public institutions serve the population. Customers certainly seem to hope this enhanced customer-centricity is here to stay.

Coming out of the storm

While our research suggests significant progress has been made, more must be done. Many public sector organisations seem to have embraced customer journey thinking. But most continue to struggle to turn those insights into action. It will take time to fully adapt public sector practices and cultures to meet the needs of citizens and businesses.

Looking at The Six Pillars results of our research, public sector organisations still have a long way to go in terms of Resolution and Empathy (recent scandals such as the 'toeslagenaffaire' have not helped matters).

In addition, Public sector organisations should be focusing on the foundation stone of customer centricity: Integrity. As MijnOverheid demonstrated this past year, a clear focus on integrity and building trust can deliver significant advantages and appreciation from the citizen.

Our research indicates the public sector has come a long way. And they are advancing step by step. We are confident it will be a march that will continue for some time to come.