Do Regulators Have Customers? (aka Attack of the Killer Tomatoes III)

by Larry Grant

So I’ve implied that the FAA has “customer confusion.” Why is it a big deal? Many government agencies have, in effect, dual roles – providing service as well as acting as regulators. For a reinventor, there are two things to be concerned about. First, it is very difficult to be both a service provider and a regulator at the same time. Second, and far more important, being clear about who is your customer is central to reinvention.

Many of our clients think that the notion of “customer” relates to how you treat people in the spirit of good “customer service.” They fear that if their agencies don’t believe that the people they deal with are their customers, they will behave cavalierly toward them – especially toward those to whom they are supposed to deliver obligations.

The problem with this point of view is that it views customer service as the central issue. In a reinvented organization the concept of “customer” goes far beyond how workers treat people. Reinvention is literally turning the organization upside down. In a bureaucratic organization the principles are hierarchy, and control through command. A reinvented organization is one that is accountable to its customers, not its “bosses” in the chain of command. In other words, in a reinvented organization the customers are at the “top” of the org chart, and everybody’s job is to either serve the customer, or serve someone who does. The issue is not customer service (although this is important), it is, rather, fundamentally changing the accountability relationships within the organization and between the organization and who it is intended to serve.

There is plenty of evidence that this is a key to unlocking the real power of individual workers and teams, and unblocking the energy and creativity of organizations.

Government workers know in their gut that the objects of regulation are not customers. Asking a traffic cop to call a speeder a “customer” is just nuts. To get them to treat these folks like human beings by calling them “customers” only does more to reinforce their resistance and cynicism toward reinvention.

For want of a better term, we call those to whom we deliver obligations “compliers.” There are issues with this, for some, because the term also includes “non-compliers” (i.e., people who don’t live up to their obligations), but on the whole this does help government workers understand that these folks are not “customers.”

How do you get your workers to treat these “compliers” well? Start measuring “complier treatment.” It won’t compare to measures of “customer satisfaction,” but it will get feedback on the quality of treatment. The next step is to think about organizing the work so that workers who are in compliance, regulatory, or control function are separate from those delivering services.

Other resources:

Situational Compliance – What’s That?

Achieving Compliance When You Can’t Compel It

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2 responses to “Do Regulators Have Customers? (aka Attack of the Killer Tomatoes III)

  1. Here’s another wrinkle about customers. What does an agency do when members of the public consider themselves customers of the agency, but that is not part of the agency’s role? In the case of FAA (where I used to work), a significant minority of the people who come to the agency website looking for services and information are travelers. But FAA has no official mission related to travelers.

    A note about language. You want to get agencies to start calling their regulated community “compliers.” Good luck. Aside from the fact that it sounds like something you might use with a pair of pliers, I doubt you’ll get folks to flock to this particular banner. Stick with customers–that’s hard enough, but at least there is some momentum. I think when you are a public servant all members of the public are your customers–even the speeder.

  2. Annetta raises a great issue. “What does an agency do when members of the public consider themselves customers of the agency but that is not part of the agency’s role?” The answer lies is looking at how the “role” of an agency is defined. Good luck if you look to legislation for the answer. Politicians often muddle agency purpose in favor of satisfying multiple constituencies.

    Rather, in real life, agency purpose is constantly negotiated in the budget process. The President and Congress (in this case) stay up to date by what programs and services they choose to fund. And the FAA gets to propose what should get funded.

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