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Why Government Needs to Get to Know Its Customers

Identifying them and their needs is the first step to serving them better and reducing wasted effort.

Three black teens playing basketball in a neighborhood.
(MCT/Seattle Times/Thomas James Hurst)
It's easy to get lost in the complexity and size of government. If you are like many government employees, seeing the connection between what you do and service to the greater good can be like finding the missing piece of an enormous puzzle. The secret to finding that piece is to discover who your customers are and, in so doing, learn how what you do connects to your agency or department and its purpose.

After all, the work you do -- and if you are a manager the work your employees do -- does have a purpose and plays a part in what your government does. Your job might be maintaining a public asset such as a building or vehicle, or keeping tabs on a criminal by entering data in the criminal-justice system, or ensuring workplace compliance by checking employee expense reports, or issuing permits or licenses to the public.

Some in government still resist the idea of referring to those they serve as "customers," since it evokes the culture of the competitive private marketplace. But whether you work in the private sector or in government, one important aspect of the job is that someone counts on you to do your job well. If you serve the public, you have external customers; if you serve other public employees, you have internal customers.

Why is it so important to identify those customers? They help us understand how the work we do is used by others. The give us valuable information we can use to make improvements. They help us see our connection to the organization's mission and goals. And they help us have a sense of being in service to others.

I once met a state employee whose job was to enter data into a system from handwritten reports. The employee had no idea what the data was used for, and so if any item on the report was illegible, she just skipped entering that data because that's what her predecessor had said they were trained to do. The employee started digging into who used the data, and she learned that one item on the report was a critical piece of information needed to strip people with too many DUI violations of their driver's licenses. Today, if that item is blank or illegible, she tracks down the person who submitted the report. She went on to make suggestions to cut the number of items on the handwritten report, which reduced by nearly half the time it took for field people to complete the report.

None of this would have happened had a department manager not started exploring with her employees the idea that everyone has customers.

Most people learn their jobs from a colleague or a supervisor. So, too often, we do what the person before us did, not understanding who receives the results of our work and what do they do with it or if it even still has value to them. How many reports get filled out and distributed that no one ever uses? It is only logical to conclude there's a lot of waste hidden by the fact that we cannot see where our work goes and what is done with it. From my conversations with many people in government, it's clear that this is a big doorway into wasted time and energy -- as much as 40 to 50 percent of people's time.

Where do you start? By asking the question: Who is my customer? Who counts on the work that I do? Figure out who it is and, if your customers are internal, go meet with them, or set up a conference call. Dig in and understand what parts of your work are most critical to them and what you do that they don't need you to do. Are there accuracy and timeliness concerns? Get to know them and their needs and ask how you can make their work easier. Have a conversation and initiate a relationship.

Talking is the first step of breaking the long-standing chain of disconnection. Everyone wins when this is done right and well. I know I am oversimplifying life working in government, and that changes are difficult to make, but it can begin with getting to know who it is you serve.

Senior fellow, Governing Institute
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