On Her Majesty’s Public Service. Episode 2: Modernising Public Services and my introduction to user needs

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Continuing my story of 35+ years as a civil servant, I moved from the MoD to the Cabinet Office in 1998, joining the Modernising Public Services Group (MPSG) which was responsible for improving the quality and responsiveness of public services.  It was here that I discovered my passion for transforming public services.

The work of the MPSG was set out in the chapters of the Modernising Government White Paper dealing with ‘responsive and quality public services’.  What really struck a chord with me was the statement in the White Paper that “we will deliver public services to meet the needs of citizens, not the convenience of service providers“.  Nearly 10 years on it is, quite rightly, hard to go anywhere in government without hearing the same phrase, although ‘users’ is preferred to ‘citizens’.

I headed up the Consultation Policy Team, where I was responsible for an initiative known as the People’s Panel; implementing a new consumer focus for public services; establishing a cross-government network of Consumer Champions; and producing the Government’s first Consultation Code of Practice.

The thinking behind the People’s Panel was that, if public services were to serve people better, then the Government needed to know more about what people want.  So, in keeping with the ethos of meeting the needs of users rather than imposing solutions, the aim of the Panel was to tell government what people really thought about their public services and the service provider’s attempts to make them better.

The People’s Panel was a 5,000-strong nationally representative group and a world first.  It was used for both quantitative and qualitative research.  It was also open and transparent with all the results being published.  Some of the subjects looked at included research about local democracy, complaints handling and transport.  It was also used to help inform the Modernising Government White Paper where we asked a number of people about their experiences at certain life episodes such as bereavement or when they needed care, to find out what the public perception was about how responsive and joined up public services were when people needed them most.

Research on its own, although laudable, wasn’t going to change anything.  The results were, therefore, used to inform policy-making.   The Panel helped prompt the setting up of action teams to look at life episodes from the users’ point of view.  DWP (then the DSS) used the Panel to help determine how they should take forward their own modernisation programme.  And DEFRA (then MAFF) carried out qualitative research into an information booklet on GM foods.

 

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