Comment: Public sector services are catching up

Public sector service is no longer child's play. Picture: TSPL
Public sector service is no longer child's play. Picture: TSPL
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THERE REMAINS a lingering perception that customers of the public sector don’t expect, and therefore don’t receive, high-quality services and products; that advancements in technology, the highest levels of customer focus and service delivery and the principle of adding value are the domains only of the private sector.

The changing reality is that sectors such as affordable housing and care and community regeneration are challenging this outdated notion by attracting top professionals into their world by being more ambitious in their thinking, and by setting themselves ever-higher targets. At Wheatley Group, we have boards, management teams and staff who believe in making things difficult for ourselves, by challenging ourselves to be the very best, without exception.

We are not alone in believing world-class customer service is not the sole preserve of the private sector and heavyweights such as Apple, Virgin and Amazon. A fast-increasing number of organisations, large and small, outwith the private sector are on this continuous journey to excellence, working hard not only to match the expectations of their customers – in our case more than 100,000 tenants, care clients and factored homeowners across Central Scotland – but to raise and exceed them.

It involves an unrelenting commitment to provide high-quality customer service and an ambition and a drive to deliver on a par with the Apples and Amazons of this world.

Wheatley Group’s four registered social landlords (Glasgow Housing Association, Cube, Loretto Housing and West Lothian Housing Partnership), one care organisation (Loretto) and two commercial subsidiaries (YourPlace Property Management and Lowther Homes) are united by a commitment to achieve excellence in everything they do.

For 2200 members of staff, that passion for delivering excellent services is summed up in two simple words: “Think Yes”. This was, initially, a culture-change programme. It is now our culture. It empowers frontline and support staff to use their judgment to “do the right thing” for their customers. It reduces bureaucracy, unnecessary escalation and delays. Staff daily design and deliver services to meet individual customers’ needs.

Think Yes staff are coached and supported to make decisions at the first point of contact with the customer. Power is shifted away from managers. Frontline and support staff are trusted to find solutions, there and then.

Another crucial element is belief and ownership. To accept and own a Think Yes culture, employees in whichever part of the business they operate – manual or professional, full-time or part-time, housing officers or lawyers, care staff or factoring agents, environmental workers or IT specialists – need the freedom to be trusted to exercise their professional judgment.

It is the basis on which we have developed a new operating model, enabling us to frontload our frontline services and remove layers of management: in other words, deploy less managers, more frontline staff. This has given us the opportunity, for example, to reduce patch sizes to just 200 homes and enable housing officers to build stronger, more personal relationships with their tenants and provide a more efficient range of services.

Think Yes began as a pilot two years ago at GHA, Wheatley’s largest subsidiary and by far Scotland’s biggest social landlord. It was the next phase of its journey to excellence and one quickly embraced by staff. Not only has it taken customer and staff satisfaction levels to new heights, it has led to the quality of our services gaining unprecedented external recognition and validation.

There was something totemic when the European Foundation for Quality Management, in recognising GHA as an international industry leader, with a track record of continuous improvement, accorded Think Yes its prestigious international Good Practice award, beating companies such as BMW and Bosch along the way.

It just goes to prove staff in the public, voluntary, social and third sectors are proving – day in, day out – they can match and, on occasion, exceed the customer focus and performance of the private sector’s stellar service providers.

• Martin Armstrong is chief executive of the Wheatley Group