The Customer’s View

April 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

The people who manage our public transportation systems, says Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack in Daniel C. Vock’s profile of her in this issue, tend to see the data they gather in terms of operations and efficiency. But, says Pollack, “I’m much more interested, and the governor’s much more interested, in data from the perspective of the customers who are using the system.”

Using data to deliver services efficiently and effectively is vital, of course, but there’s much wisdom in Pollack’s focus on the people who rely on those services. We hear a lot of talk in government circles these days about managing programs from the point of view of the customer experience, but that is hard to do -- so hard that it rarely happens.

I think one of the main reasons that’s true is because there’s a huge but too-often unrecognized gulf between the life experience of the people in charge and those who depend the most on public services. The people in charge are not only those who run our governments but also those in advocacy organizations and in the media who influence public policy. They are almost invariably better educated and make a lot more money than the rest of the population.

Only about 30 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, but virtually all public officials and their influencers do. Men with a B.A. or higher have a median income of about $72,000; for similarly educated women, the figure is about $55,000. But for the population that holds only a high school diploma, the medians are about $39,000 for men and about $30,000 for women.

There is a world of difference in the daily experiences of these two groups. Who has encounters with the police? Who rides the bus? For the most part, it is those with less education and less money. But who designs and runs public services? Well educated, more affluent professionals. This is most apparent in the area of school reform, but it exists throughout government.

I don’t think this was always so. It used to be more likely that there were places where we mixed. It’s interesting that the one place that gets the most attention for government dysfunction is often the Department of Motor Vehicles, and that’s because it’s one of the few services that almost everyone still uses. Understanding government from the point of view of those it serves isn’t something that comes naturally. As thoughtful public officials like Stephanie Pollack understand, it requires real effort.