There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to split up the local population. For every different service in local government there are different considerations to make and thus different ways to assess the members of the public that make up your customer base.
Despite the different methodologies there is probably one thing that we all, at least in part agree on; that it is important to understand the people you are meant to be serving.
In the private sector we would have a fairly simple starting point; we would want to keep current customers and then work hard to attract other customers.
In effect, the private sector organisation is dealing with two publics; those who use their service/product and those that don’t currently use the service/product but might.
In local authorities, and the public sector more generally, this situation is greatly complicated by a third public; those who have no need or interest in a specific public service but because they in some way contribute to it have an opinion which needs to be taken seriously. This method of splitting up the local population is a crude one but it can be instructive when trying to understand the political responses to service changes and the way that local authorities try to meet the needs of their local community.
1) The public who use a service
We tend to be fairly good at collecting information about those who currently use our service, how they feel about it and what we could do to improve it. However, there are two problems with how we manage this public. Firstly, for services with a relatively small client group we tend to use the current service as the context and then talk to our customers about how it works and how it could be changed or improved. We rarely ask the bigger question of if the service was starting from scratch how would we design it and what would it look like?
The second struggle is where the services reach vast quantities of the public. For these services we often give them simultaneously too much focus (bin collection and potholes anyone?) and not enough detailed conversation with the public concerned. Thus, we will often spend lots of money on the services involved but perhaps won’t take the extra time to really make sure we are delivering the service the different parts of the community might need or want. In a funny way in these situations it seems that the public becomes too big for us to really handle.
2) The public who don’t use a service but might do in the future