Part 2: Delivering good services

Reflections from our audits: Service delivery.

Our report Reflections from our audits: Our future needs – is the public sector ready? included a section "He tāngata – it's about people". Good public services are delivered by people who understand the importance of what they do and how they affect the lives of the people they serve. This puts public servants at the heart of delivering good services.

This Part highlights some of the aspects that allow public servants to do their best each day in delivering, adapting, and continually improving public services.

Public entities need committed and capable people with the right skills, information, and tools to deliver services. These people need to be valued, inspired, and empowered.

A culture of service

Being in the public service means serving the needs of the people. Many people join public entities because they share this purpose. In our opinion, there is a culture of service in the public sector. We observe this culture in the organisations that we audit.

Inspirational leaders

We have regular discussions with leaders in the public sector. Capable leaders are instrumental to a culture that delivers good services. Their values, actions, and behaviours inspire good service delivery. Leaders who provide clear and compelling direction focused on high-quality service delivery allow staff to do their work well. Such leaders value initiative and comments, place confidence in, trust, and energise staff, and give staff incentives.

The Department of Corrections appears to have recognised this. Although we have not audited it, we are aware that the Visible Leadership Programme in the Department of Corrections seeks to support managers to become strong, capable leaders. The Department of Corrections' 2014 Annual Report notes that:

Our leaders will work actively with staff to engage them in creating lasting change, and ensure that we truly unify our efforts to reduce re-offending.

We also note that, in 2014, the New Zealand Police, Ministry of Social Development, New Zealand Defence Force, and Inland Revenue jointly received an Institute of Public Administration New Zealand Excellence Award for developing a leadership programme for large public entities with many branches and substantial operational service delivery requirements.

Meaningful core values inspire good service delivery. We found that the New Zealand Blood Service was managing the safety and supply of blood products well when we reported on this in February 2012, and is one of a few organisations in the world that provide a full "vein-to-vein" nationally integrated blood service. It was clear that a meaningful core value of "Safety is our cornerstone" guided a strong sense of customer care in the way the Blood Service worked.

A lack of clear and effective leadership can adversely affect services. For example, when preparing our May 2015 report Whānau Ora: The first four years, we got no consistent explanation of the aims of the Whānau Ora initiatives from the public entities involved (Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Social Development) or anyone else. So far, the objectives have been unclear and confusing to many public entities and whānau.

Committed, empathetic, and skilled staff

Throughout our work, we see highly committed and capable people working in the public sector to deliver effective and efficient public services. Our work on service delivery has highlighted examples, including:

  • the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) staff who showed a commitment to customer service and the principles underlying the Code of ACC Claimants' Rights that we observed as part of our work on how ACC deals with complaints;
  • the case managers at the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) who had made a real difference to the lives of the clients we spoke to as part of our work on how MSD's case management;
  • the people helping whānau to take more control of their lives in Whānau Ora;
  • the staff of the New Zealand Police focusing more on the needs of people who have reported a sexual assault, on being more empathetic and showing greater respect for victims, and on what is right for the victim; and
  • the staff at Watercare's customer contact centre providing advice to users of its services. (Watercare is the integrated water and wastewater service provider for the Auckland region.)

Staff able to relate well to customers

Making a personal connection with the person receiving a service can transform the service experience for that person. Staff skilled in interpersonal relations make these connections with people, and these skills go in tandem with the technical skills required to deliver good services.

Case management requires such a people-centred approach. In our December 2014 report on how MSD uses work-focused case management, we found that MSD was simplifying its processes and centralising routine transactional work to allow case managers more time with clients. MSD requires case managers to build ongoing relationships with their clients, and MSD was at an early stage in defining how case managers should engage with clients to get the best outcomes.

We recommended that MSD develop an approach to assessing and supporting case manager performance that reflects the importance of soft skills, such as effective client engagement, as well as technical skills.

In our October 2014 report on ACC's case management, we noted that case managers have to use good judgement to make decisions that are appropriate to each person's needs and circumstances. Technical skills can be taught, but it is also important to have the necessary "softer" skills, such as empathy and the ability to communicate. As one staff member told us, a good case manager is "someone who wants to do the job for the right reasons".

ACC knows what skills and experience case managers need. However, specialist training in case management has been limited. ACC has introduced a programme to provide specialist training to case managers.

Training staff well

Well-trained people deliver more effective services. For example, our November 2013 report Effectiveness and efficiency of arrangements to repair pipes and roads in Christchurch found that the alliance set up to reinstate the pipes and roads the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) used highly trained specialists to develop practical solutions.

Our May 2014 report Watercare Services Limited: Review of service performance found that Watercare worked to provide its customers with good service in our view, largely successfully. For example, it has a customer contact centre that, despite technology constraints, works well. The centre's staff are well trained and have access to a knowledge base that is up to date, clear, and concise.

Good information, systems, and tools

To provide good services, staff need to have good information, systems, and tools. Together, these help staff to deliver good services that can be targeted and tailored to people's different needs and preferences.

Good information

Good information helps to ensure that service are delivered well. For example, our November 2014 report Water and roads: Funding and management challenges, which looked at local authorities' management of infrastructure assets, showed how Wellington City Council uses geospatial information and statistical modelling to forecast the city's infrastructural asset needs. The Council believes that it can generate efficiency and productivity benefits because it will be better able to choose the best time to carry out capital works and make new investments.

Poor information undermines service quality. In our report on ACC's use of case management, we found that a person's rehabilitation depends on the knowledge a case manager has and the decisions they make supported by ACC's systems and information.

We recommended that ACC set out the standard possible treatment and rehabilitation steps for a given injury, based on scientific evidence, in the information systems that its case managers use. This would help ensure that claimants in similar circumstances receive consistent and effective treatment and rehabilitation, based on proven treatment and rehabilitation pathways.

In our report on MSD's use of case management, we also found that MSD needed to improve the systems that staff use and consider how to make guidance more accessible to staff. MSD produced case management practice guides in May 2013, but staff awareness of the guides was low. MSD was providing more staff training, guidance, and support to help staff achieve the goals of the new case management approach.

Good systems

Good systems support quality service delivery. In our October 2013 report Earthquake Commission: Managing the Canterbury Home Repair Programme, we found that the Earthquake Commission had performed well in managing repair costs and setting the home-repair programme up quickly, but had not performed as well in dealing with homeowners. Some important systems, controls, and support functions should have been in place and fully effective sooner, including controls to help manage risks to repair quality. Some homeowners were dissatisfied with the quality of repairs or the time taken to complete the repairs after work had started.

Introducing new systems can be challenging, and it is important to manage their introduction well. The problems that the Ministry of Education had introducing Novopay affected many employees, including those who were not paid, underpaid, or overpaid. We summarised the main findings from some of the reviews of Novopay's introduction in our May 2014 report Schools: Results of the 2012 audits. General lessons for introducing systems include the need for:

  • strong project governance and leadership to manage risks associated with "going live";
  • adequate development and testing before "going live";
  • good preparation for systems going live, including adequate training and support for staff; and
  • sound financial management to control costs.

Good tools

Good tools enable staff to deliver better services. In our August 2014 report on ACC's handling of complaints, we found that ACC needed to better equip staff with skills, knowledge, and tools to handle complaints. Frontline staff told us that they felt equipped to deal with complaints, but most did not feel that ACC had given them the skills, knowledge, and tools to deal with complaints.

Many relied on advice and guidance from their peers when dealing with complaints. Peer support was effective, but access to information was difficult. To be effective, staff need training, a supportive network of peers to help them, and easily accessible information. Without all of these, there is a risk that complaints might not be handled consistently or with up-to-date, accurate, and reliable information.

Astute planning for capacity and capability

The biggest and most important resource in delivering public services is the staff who provide the services. These people deliver the services and can also deliver improvements.

It is important that public entities ensure that they have the right capability and number of staff to deliver effective and efficient services that meet current and future demands. This means having workforce plans and strategies, including succession planning, that reflect and support how services will be delivered in the future.

Our annual audits of local authorities show that finding and retaining some specialist staff continues to challenge. Small and medium-sized local authorities generally find this more challenging. Aspects such as location and being unable to offer competitive salaries and opportunities for career advancement can make attracting capable staff difficult.

Our April 2015 report Auckland Council: How it deals with building consents provided an example of managing capacity and capability well. Auckland Council's Building Control department is focused on ensuring that it has the capacity and capability to meet the expected increased demand for its services. It is recruiting new graduates to replenish its ageing workforce. The Building Control department is introducing new training initiatives. It is also ensuring that all technical staff have the requisite qualifications in time to meet new regulatory requirements.

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