Do government CIOs have anything to learn from the private sector about e-government and customer relationship management? Well, yes and no. In some cases government agencies are even ahead of the game . . .
Australians' love of technology and our reputation as early adopters are helping drive customer relationship management (CRM) and associated -etechnologies into government with a vengeance. Helped along by an increasing number of CIOs stepping over from the private to the public sector, CRM is booming and it appears that in many cases the government sector is leading the field.
"The Australian Tax Office has launched what's called the ECMP, the easier, cheaper more personalized change program," says Andrew Johnstone-Burt, COO of Capgemini, a consultancy organization that advises on and oversees change. Capgemini has just signed a deal with the ATO to be the assurers of the organization's latest e-initiatives.
"It's a major change program totally focused on the customer - you and me, the taxpayers - so in this particular agency there's a huge stride forwards and it's very positive. But the ATO is at the leading edge. The challenge is for the other agencies to deliver similar benefits," Johnstone-Burt says.
This is a view echoed by John O'Brien, vice-president Asia Pacific for CRM provider FrontRange Solutions, who says the ATO "has really done a great job" of rethinking its external persona. "They have two simple objectives - better adherence to the tax laws combined with and supported by better customer service.
"Overall, there is some wonderful work being done in the public sector at all levels that sometimes outstrips what the private sector does - it's a credit to the persistence of the individuals and their management. The fact is, in IT, leaders can come from anywhere, not just the private sector, but in the ATO's case, they are a great example of government doing its own thinking," O'Brien says.
Simon Burke, British Telecom's managing director, Contact Central, Asia Pacific - a division that provides CRM ingredients in an out-of-the-box package - says: "I would say that at the moment the ATO has a far more effective CRM environment than most Australian banks. The use of the Internet for starters; the ATO's Web site is a much richer interactive environment than what most banks offer. Banks struggle with a complexity of product. The ATO has a far clearer, simpler more valuable CRM proposition than do most of the Australian banks."
Heading the ATO's CRM push, which involves a good deal of advanced technology as well as significant internal culture shifts, is CIO Bill Gibson. Having come to the ATO from Qantas, Gibson has an intimate knowledge of how the private sector handles change.
"I would say the experience from the private sector is especially relevant when assessing the rate of take-up and the customer expectations that need to be met when you launch CRM capability," Gibson says. "This has profound implications around currency and accuracy of the information that you hold in the CRM environment."
What Gibson and his colleagues have embarked upon is a truly major change initiative that is aimed at making the ATO more user-friendly to its customers. Clearly that includes just about every adult living in Australia, so it is an important and widespread undertaking.
"The [Taxation] Commissioner recognized the need some time ago [to listen to customers and react to their concerns] and we have made enormous progress within our community of users and clients," Gibson says. "Through our 'Listening to the Community' initiative we have gained an understanding of their needs and how we can best achieve outcomes for the government, bearing these needs in mind."
There seems little doubt that listening to the customers is the first step towards creating a CRM system that works.
Lessons can sometimes be learnt from experiences overseas where often there has not been the service culture that we in Australia take for granted. Just such an example is the UK where, ironically, one of the companies that had one of the worst reputations with its customers is now one of the world's leading CRM suppliers.
"There's no doubt, British Telecom was hated," says BT's Simon Burke. "And that meant we had our own issues with CRM."
Burke says it took his company 15 years to achieve the right response to customers, and insists the job is never finished, a fact he stresses to government customers at every opportunity.
"I know that to most CIOs, whether they are in government or the public sector, if you took a straw poll most of them would say: 'Oh God, don't mention CRM, it's a swear word', mainly because it's been oversold and under-delivered. But carried out correctly the CRM proposition is an incredibly valuable one. The CRM story doesn't end. The demand for the services just keeps evolving and changing."
Gibson agrees that is true and believes it is one reason why, despite the ATO being recognized as something of a leader in CRM, it is not doing anything too revolutionary in terms of the technology.
"In our case we deliberately avoid being 'early adopters' of new technology. In all other areas we are open-minded and consider any idea/approach on its merits. I have observed a revived interest in dialogues with private enterprise colleagues in understanding how they deliver on their responsibilities and the relevance of this to the public sector."
However, technology alone will never do it. As Burke points out, CRM stands on three pillars; if one of those pillars is not in place the whole CRM edifice comes tumbling down, be it in the private or public sector.
"People, process and technology - those are the three pillars. If you rely only on one of those pillars it will fall over. If there's too much reliance on the technology to be the saviour and the answer, well, it's simply not going to happen. Clearly some people have based CRM purely on the technology but not put those other pillars in place, and that's when you get problems. If you're going to make it work you've got to think about your processes and more importantly how you get the culture of the organization and how you get your people to change. The biggest thing is getting the people to change," Burke says.
Johnstone-Burt at Capgemini agrees. "The culture is completely different in government compared to the private sector and so change is a huge challenge. It's fine putting in fancy new systems but bringing the staff along with it in terms of the behaviour that has to follow and the way they deal with the customer - typically the taxpayer - that's really a big challenge. They [government agencies] do understand that they have to change their culture and that is a long journey. You also have to ask the question - what's the likelihood of sustaining the change? That too is a challenge," he says.
Yet the ATO's Gibson claims to have seen relatively little resistance to change, at least in his organization, and also believes that is an overall trend in the public sector. "I do not believe there is any unilateral resistance," he says.
"Often in large organizations there is great resistance to change," says John O'Brien from FrontRange. "It is not purely the preserve of the government. Institutionalization is everywhere and it exists particularly in IT. The good thing in the industry is that everyone from suppliers to customers is getting more sophisticated at defining, executing, delivering and, last but not least, taking responsibility for what they contribute."
However, some CRM specialists do believe the cultural differences between the private and public sectors are hindering take-up of good CRM policies and systems across government.
Ralph Breslauer, executive vice-president, sales and marketing at Concerto Software, says CRM is a "very significant" investment. "And the government is much more slow-moving to adopt new technology as well as much more financially conservative than the private sector. CRM isn't a new concept, whatever some companies will have you believe; it's been around since the days of bartering in markets across the world."
But even so, Breslauer says that government can teach the private sector some lessons.
"What customers face now, more often than not in the private sector, is actually the antithesis of what they expect," Breslauer says. "Big businesses promise multi-channel, event-driven contact centres, one-to-one marketing, the personal touch, a fast, efficient service tailored to the individual. But what customers get are faceless call centres where they're passed from pillar to post without an acceptable resolution to their problems; companies trying to shift them away from high-cost channels (branches, people) on to more cost-effective ones (the telephone, the Internet) without making the service compelling enough by being personal enough to make the change a welcome one."
Handle with Care
Johnstone-Burt also cautions that not all that the private sector does is necessarily good or should be copied.
Government agencies should be sure they are taking only the good things from the private sector, he warns. The notions that everything in the private sector is better, or that the private sector is somehow radically different and therefore not workable in the public sector, is just not true.
"An organization like Centrelink compares very favourably, in terms of numbers at least, with Westpac Bank. The way their call centres operate, the way Centrelink deals with its customers is very comparable," Johnstone-Burt says.
"Arguably, theoretically at least, there is no reason why Centrelink cannot be just as efficient as Westpac is in the way it uses its CRM. There is a need for both of those organizations to be agile and nimble. Centrelink has to be agile and nimble in terms of responding to policy changes - that's something that can happen quite regularly - and they are acutely conscious of that."
O'Brien agrees. "Increasingly in the public sector we're seeing accountability, performance management and a return on investment to taxpayers. Just as government departments are deploying e-business strategies to reduce infrastructure IT costs, CIOs are helping their departments increase the quality of service to taxpayers, whether it be in keeping the streets clean, delivering quality housing or improving education. It's all about service delivery and ultimately this plays the same as in the private sector."
Some players argue that the biggest benefit government can get from taking note of what the private sector has done in the CRM space is to provide better information to more people at a lower cost.
"For instance, making information available in a self-service manner, via the Internet or voice recognition systems, can substantially cut down on the number of calls that come in which need to be handled by costly employees in person," Breslauer says. "It can also increase revenue by educating people about sources of revenue (hunting/fishing licences, property taxes etc) and then making those easier to pay - for example using their credit card on the Web."
But while Gibson finds this all very fine and well, he believes in treading carefully, and he also believes that is a theme across government. "Whilst we are strongly encouraging 'e-contact', to ensure the clients' experience is favourable, we are channelling such take-up gradually. This permits us to confirm the community needs in a managed way."
Breslauer says he too believes the managed approach is best for all concerned - government and taxpayers.
"We're seeing changes at all levels of government in trying to drive more efficiency and greater accountability, yes. What I see is agencies are beginning to take advantage of their own business processes. For example, many government contact centres now have well-trained agents interacting knowledgeably with the customer using real-time, adaptive applications which step them through the necessary workflow, business rules and processes. This reduces training costs, improves productivity and can help lower front-office staff turnover. Any changes are directly implemented for all channels so that the department presents one and only one face consistently to the outside world. Such an approach is radically different from the typical data-centric applications used in government agencies a few years ago."
Over at Capgemini, Johnstone-Burt also sees a change in the air, due largely to what he, not surprisingly, describes as the "terrific response" to a Capgemini-developed software and hardware package aimed at local councils. Councils Online, as it is called, is what Capgemini describes as, "a whole-of-council business solution incorporating redesigned business processes, a shared technology platform and a low-risk approach to deploying the solution".
Breslauer thinks it could go even further than that. He believes that like the private sector, government has its own brand and that it is something that should be jealously protected.
"Government agencies are now brands in their own right, with their own logos and marketing budgets. With many young private sector CIOs moving into the government sector, I think we'll see every chance of governments behaving more like the private sector in their interaction with members of the public. In the consumer world, the customer's purchasing decision is based on brand trust, and that brand experience must be consistent across all channels of interaction and the full range of products. It must be persistent in its approach to the customer and it must interact with the customer intelligently throughout the life cycle of the relationship."
Breslauer says that given those sorts of results, government agencies will not only work more smoothly, they will also be more efficient and cost-effective.
Johnstone-Burt also believes this and that is why, he says, there is so much local government -interest in Councils Online. "The system will allow you the ratepayer to go online and circle a block of building land and find out about it via the Internet without having to call anybody. You will also be able to enter development applications and do all sorts of other things. It is a technology that's available now and councils can see its value."
Breslauer agrees that the e-route is the direction councils and government departments will increasingly take. "The biggest change in government will come from departments linking planning, budgeting and execution, and as a result the public will gain access to the right information at the right time that suits them as an individual customer.
"E-contact will allow for greater convenience for the public: for example, to be able to pay a parking ticket to the court via an IVR rather than writing a cheque, purchasing a stamp and posting it. There will definitely be more e-contact as we become a semi-cashless society."
Over at the ATO, CIO Gibson is helping guide his organization through the transition and he is convinced that the targets and desired outcomes will definitely be achieved.
"Each agency will make its own determination. In our case we see CRM as a central and important element of further developing our client service capabilities and are planning accordingly," he says.
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