Part 5: Listening, learning, and communicating

Reflections from our audits: Service delivery.

Understanding how services are experienced and performing is important for identifying how they can be continuously improved. Listening to, and learning from, feedback from people receiving services and analysing performance offers valuable insights into what is working well for people and what can be changed to improve service. Public entities also need to provide information to people about what they can expect from services and how well services are performing to manage expectations and help to understand service performance.

Listening to people's comments

People's views are important, and listening to people about their service experiences, both positive and negative, is vital to understanding people's needs and expectations, and, where appropriate, adapting services to meet them. Public services are about serving the public, and public entities need to regularly "check in" to ensure that they are providing services that are effective and of the quality people can reasonably expect.

How an organisation manages complaints is a useful barometer of its commitment to service delivery that meets people's needs. Public entities that welcome complaints signal to citizens that someone is listening to them and that they can influence public services. For the entities, complaints are a free source of advice. Complaints can provide valuable insight into poor service, systemic errors, or problems with specific processes. Complaints also give public entities an opportunity to understand the motives, feelings, and expectations of the people using their services.

Organisations committed to delivering excellent services that meet people's needs embrace complaints. Complaints must be easy to make, consistently recorded, thoughtfully analysed, openly reported, and acted on.

As part of our work on ACC's and MSD's handling of complaints and use of case management, we sought views from many people about their experiences through face-to-face interviews. For our work on ACC's and MSD's handling of complaints we also sought complainant views through telephone surveys. We got a real sense of how important ACC's and MSD's services were to those people and what a significant effect the services have on their lives.

Our August 2014 report on ACC's handling of complaints found room for improvement in ACC's complaints system. Organisational learning from complaints was limited and some significant problems with ACC's complaints system had to be addressed, including a need for ACC to do more to understand how people experienced the complaints system and why some people do not complain.

Our August 2014 report on MSD's handling of complaints found many positive features to how MSD manages complaints, such as making it reasonably easy for people to complain and changing some practices as a result of complaints. For example, MSD used information from complaints and other analysis to prepare materials to help train and coach staff and to change the design of an office to make things more comfortable for people receiving services.

One of the MSD clients that we interviewed said that the MSD person handling their complaint was polite and understanding, and read back everything that they had written down about the complaint, so the person complaining felt they had a chance to correct anything.

We are aware of other examples of organisations seeking feedback about their services.

The Tax Simplification Panel is an example of how Inland Revenue is seeking to engage with its customers. We have not audited the Panel but are aware that it first met in August 2014. It seeks to give individual taxpayers, small businesses, and the tax advisory community a voice in simplifying, modernising, and transforming the way tax is paid.

Another Inland Revenue initiative we are aware of is the pilot Save Time campaign in the Hawkes Bay in May 2014. In response to this campaign, Inland Revenue received more than 1400 submissions and about 300 individual suggestions for improvement from small business owners, which were to be used to prioritise, develop, and deliver changes.

Learning from information and experience

Analysing data and using information effectively are powerful ways of learning and improving service, organisation, and system performance.

Using and learning from information at service and organisation level

Our report on MSD's use of case management found that MSD had some innovative methods for assessing whether its spending gets the best return for taxpayers by getting the best outcomes.

MSD is still developing these methods of assessment, but they provide useful information. Good information is important because MSD wants to continue making evidence-based decisions about further changes to its case management approach to improve cost-effectiveness.

Our report looking at local authorities' approaches to managing infrastructure assets found that councillors and communities need good information so they can understand and make choices about the services that are important for their future. Information to enable understanding and choices is not consistently available.

Our February 2015 report Education for Māori: Relationships between schools and whānau found that schools should periodically assess the quality of their relationships with all families, not only whānau. Doing so is one way to show schools where they are doing well and where they can improve.

Using information to improve system performance

Although public entities can measure their performance at an organisational level, it is less common for organisations to work together to understand and act on performance at a sector or system level. We are aware of examples where this is starting to happen, such as New Zealand's border agencies working together and with others at Auckland Airport to manage security, reduce queues, and save travel time for passengers, including through using technology. Sharing information between public entities can give help to clarify service needs and performance.

As public entities collaborate more, measuring performance between public entities will become more relevant. Sharing, using and making data and information available will enable public entities to collectively understand and improve service performance, and deliver the best services – for example, delivering more joined-up and citizen-centred services that are appropriately targeted and tailored so that they meet citizens' needs and expectations. There is also the opportunity to gain efficiencies with a more joined-up approach to gathering and using research and performance data, within the constraints of preserving privacy and complying with legislation.

At the centre of a government's ability to learn and know when to change course is the ability to understand the "big picture". Recent evaluation mechanisms that are harnessing information to help system-level learning include:

  • the State Sector Policy and Performance Hub set up to provide system oversight and enhance central agencies' ability to identify improvements needed to make the state sector system work better; and
  • the Performance Improvement Framework reviews, co-ordinated by the State Services Commission, which provide an evaluation mechanism for public entities to understand how they are performing.

Communicating about expectations and performance

People should know what to expect from services and also how well services are performing so they can judge whether they are being served well. Public entities should provide people with timely and appropriate information.

We have observed examples of public entities providing improved information and where communication has not been as good as it could be and needs to be improved.

Other factors influencing client satisfaction ... include the communication they receive … and consequently how well informed clients feel.

Our work with education entities has shown some areas of improved performance reporting. Improving performance reporting takes resources and expertise. However, if done well, it can greatly enhance governance and management practice to deliver better services as well as inform people better. In October 2014, we sent all Tertiary Education Institutions (TEIs) our summary findings on their non-financial performance reporting. We found that:

  • the quality of TEIs' performance reporting is improving each year, although there is some significant variation between individual institutions;
  • people in the TEI sector are looking beyond compulsory reporting to thinking about, and reporting on, how service performance reporting can represent the comprehensive effects that TEIs aim to have on their students, in their research, and on wider society;
  • annual reports increasingly contain narrative and explanations about TEIs' performance; and
  • some of the "basics" of good performance reporting have yet to be used consistently.

Examples where communication has not been as good as it could be and needs to be improved include:

  • Our October 2013 report Earthquake Commission: Managing the Canterbury Home Repair Programme noted that homeowners have experienced inconsistency in information and processes, and long periods without specific information from the Earthquake Commission about their claim, leading to a lack of certainty while waiting for repairs. The Commission has made some improvements to its communication since our report.
  • Our May 2014 report Watercare Services Limited: Review of service performance noted that Watercare should provide its customers with better information about how it operates, particularly in relation to its water usage estimation process and water restriction policy and practices, and what customers can expect so that customers have all the information they need to understand their rights and obligations, and what they can expect from Watercare.
  • Our April 2015 report Auckland Council: How it deals with building consents noted a large gap between what the Council's Building Control department expects and what customers believe is expected of them, suggesting that communication with customers is not as good as it should be.
  • Our February 2015 report Ministry for Primary Industries: Managing the Primary Growth Partnership noted that more is required to achieve clear, simple, and understandable public reporting on individual programmes and the PGP portfolio.

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