My supermarket can teach the government some relationship lessons

I recently wrote about the potential for crowd-sourcing as a useful and productive way for the government to engage further with voters.  I’ve also recently suggested that a corollary for the transparent government agenda should be greater use of crowd-sourcing, and a recent email from my online supermarket has prompted some more thoughts.

Whether the government actively seeks ideas – such as when it sought extra pairs of eyes to pick over Gordon Brown’s last Budget, or when the e-petitions site worked – or whether citizens proactively submit them (for example, all the hundreds of people who write to Ministers and MPs every day) shouldn’t matter. But I suspect it does, because if the government is asking for opinions and ideas, it means it is actively thinking about the issue, and as we all know if a government doesn’t have to think about something, it tries not to.

The supermarket answer? Well, it tracks, monitors and – crucially – crunches enormous amounts of data – how people use its site, what they buy, the times and places they have their order delivered. But also, it recently sent out a survey asking what its customers thought – of the delivery process, the check out process, the contents of the online shop, the call centre, the drivers, the food itself once delivered… and anything else we fancied telling them.

Is there a lesson there for the government? Yes there is. The government has stacks and stacks of data. Some of it is pointless, some of it is unusable, some of it is immensely valuable and, in the right hands, can provide valuable insights. And sometimes, the government doesn’t understand how we use public services – so it should ask. Politicians can’t improve things if we don’t tell them how.

The second supermarket insight is that they then sent a follow-up email with some of the suggestions made during their survey, saying that some things would be implemented, some would be looked into and some weren’t currently possible. I was actually quite surprised to get this email (entitled “You spoke. We listened.”)  I don’t think I have ever had any information back after taking a survey. It was a pleasant surprise, and quite interesting to see what other people had suggested.

And the lesson for the government? If you’re going to attempt to engage, it can’t be a one-off. In fact, I’d say that this needs to start small… So perhaps, given the CCHQ members survey that went out last week, they should ensure that everyone gets a summary of the responses to that and any actions that will be taken as a result. Then next time there is a crowd-sourcing exercise, they should at least email a thank you to everyone, and hopefully a summary of suggestions and what will be done (if anything).

Government and public service is not – or shouldn’t be – a consumer-type exercise. It’s about far more than that. But its most basic expression should be accountability to those who pay the bills – and that means governments need to think as if they really do have competitors snapping at their heels all the time.

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