The three publics

Because penguins are much cuter than the public

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

These are the group of users that are often extremely poorly served by local authorities. Whereas good private sector companies spend a lot of time trying to reach new customers most public sector organisations spend proportionately more of their time focused on the customers they already have. This is right in one sense; for a lot of our services we’re not actually trying to attract customers but instead trying to meet the statutory needs of people the Government has decided we should serve. However, in another sense the fact that we design our services for the here and now rather than the future is quite self-defeating.

Some services might not be reaching out to all the people who need to access them; some others might be designed in such a way that they only meet part of the community need. Others will have large demographic shifts coming down the pipeline and will need to re-orientate the services they provide.

This is a rather small example but it is illustrative: I remember going to a council organised tea dance about 5 years ago and speaking to some of the older people present. The very oldest loved the tea dance and had been coming for years but for some in the generation below that (still over ten years beyond the council’s definition for the people the dance was meant to be serving) a good bit of 50s rock and roll would have been far more appropriate. We were still catering to the clients we had been catering for over the past fifteen years.

3)    The public who will never use a service

One of the funny things about this group is that often they will use a service in the future; they just don’t realise it. However, the non-user group can have a major impact on policy and the way services are designed. Often, the tension is caused by those who fear that the provision of another service will in some way damage services that they use.

NIMBY examples are particularly instructive in this case. How often has a school extension or a local are home been opposed by local residents concerned about some common land or the ‘feel’ of their neighbourhood?

Also interesting are the issues the non-users choose to get agitated about. One of my local MPs used to say that if everyone who signed a petition to save the local post office/shop/pub actually visited it once in a while the business would turn a tidy profit. The same applies to our libraries services which are often well supported even whilst not having attendance figures to match that support.

Overall, the non-users have a, rightfully, large impact over many service decisions and do so in a way that is very unlikely to apply to any but the biggest private sector enterprises.

This is already a long post so I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say, when designing local government services all of the publics need to be taken into consideration and forgetting about any one of them, or focusing on one group too heavily, can lead to the wrong decisions being made.

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2 Comments on “The three publics”

  1. Performance Officer Says:

    One (slightly off topic) comment – someone in our Council recently said that when they went to a tea dance, there were comments that what would be the music of their youth would actually be punk rock….

    More broadly, good post! Made me think…

  2. Mike Says:

    I think the post makes a good point about truing to manage multiple constituents. I think though that the premise on which it’s written presupposes that rational decision making is the order of the day.
    As we know in local government decisions can be taken for many other non-rational reasons, political vote catching, self serving interests etc.

    Not closing the library down may not make any financial sense but might catch more votes than closure would.

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