It’s interesting, isn’t it, that, as much as we tend to disapprove of supermarkets – tut-tutting when we read about their profits, shaking our heads at the allegations of how they treat their suppliers and despairing at how they put local shops out of business – we still can’t quite bring ourselves to stop using them?
The trouble is that supermarkets just happen to be really good at what they do. Like them or not, they really understand their customers – hence the introduction of internet ordering and home deliveries, the beautifully timed offers of cheaper barbecue-ready hamburgers on weekends when good weather is forecast and the sympathetic attitude to drivers which leads to regular fuel discounts.
You have to take your hat off to them – but, of course, a lot of their ideas and consequent actions come about because they both talk to and listen to their customers.
It would be good, wouldn’t it, if some of our public-sector organisations thought the same way? Instead, it strikes me that many public-sector organisations are acting in a manner that is utterly contemptuous of their customers – who, I remind you, are us, the taxpayers who pay their salaries and fund their gold-plated pension schemes.
The attitude of some of these organisations beggars belief. The Treasury, in particular, is top of the league table for arrogance and a complete lack of customer focus. For example, we all know that the high price of fuel is mainly due to the 70% or so in tax that the Treasury takes on every litre.
It is, therefore, within the power of said Treasury to ease the pressure on the motorist by reducing that tax (not just delaying planned increases), but of course it won’t do it.
In supermarket terms, it is therefore abusing its monopoly position and making windfall profits.
Sad to say, the whole concept of considering customers’ needs seems to be missing from the remit of many, if not most, public-sector organisations.
Energy – its costs and availability – is a topic of huge importance to just about everyone. Most people are really very worried about increasing energy costs, and those who think about it are also becoming concerned over supply.
Despite this, the attitude of the Treasury appears to be one of “let them eat cake”, and it is determined not to give in to “customer concern” over the additional tax it has taken in due particularly to the increase in the oil price.
Tax issues apart, it is also fairly common knowledge that, for a country that is supposed to have the world’s third or fourth largest economy, the amount being spent by the UK Government on energy R&D remains relatively small. Talk to technology developers, whether in academia or in the private sector, and unless they are part of some large, and usually foreign-owned, organisation, they are generally quite despairing of Government attitudes and, indeed, the attitude of Government-sponsored R&D organisations.
This same issue of poor “customer relations” is also evident across other elements of the public sector. Planning, in particular, is one area where the quality of decision-making is well behind that of public opinion, and this leads to huge tensions between planners and their customer base. Why exactly does it take so long for windfarm applications and other energy projects to be rejected or, indeed, accepted when the views of the customers – the residents and others – should be very obvious from day one. The costs involved are huge on all sides so decisions need to be made much more quickly.
The decision on the Skye windfarm project took more than five years. Customer consideration was almost non-existent that time. Money and reputations could have been saved if the planners had simply listened to what their customers – the Skye residents and others – were saying.
There are similar examples in other parts of the Scottish public sector.
Scottish Enterprise, ITI Scotland and the councils all need to take more heed of their customers’ interests. They have to understand that, while we expect them to lead, we don’t expect them to work entirely to their own agenda. To be fair, it’s early days for the new leader of ITI Scotland, Tom Botting, who is working assiduously on get this unit properly on track after a shaky few years.
So can we define, to any great extent, exactly what it is that customers want from these organisations?
I think so, and self-evidently top of the list would probably be that any windfall economic benefits due to the increase in tax take on much higher oil or gas prices should find its way back into the pockets of customers, either directly or indirectly.
By the latter, I mean, of course, increased investment in new energy technologies such as wave or tidal systems – or, indeed, new fuels.
I also believe that, given what has happened to the oil price in the past few months (and $113 is still very high), efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through carbon trading and other financial institution-style smart-Alec mechanisms that trade paper but don’t achieve anything tangible are even less appealing to people than they used to be.
Allowing and encouraging carbon traders to make money while the cost of heating oil, diesel and petrol, electricity and gas go through the roof does not make any sense and certainly doesn’t endear the Treasury to anyone.