Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Government centres should operate with the efficiency of a business

Services could be improved if every user was treated like a consumer who could take their custom elsewhere

Government services will be rated next month. Getty
Government services will be rated next month. Getty

Next month, the office of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, will be revealing the identities of the five best and the five worst-performing government service centres across the UAE.

With his July announcement of the awards came a stark warning: "We will not be satisfied with anything less than the top position worldwide in our services and facilities," he said.

Come September 14, every manager of a government service centre will be dreading being in the bottom five. But perhaps they should rethink their strategy.

Sheikh Mohammed's announcement brought to mind a theory called "jobs to be done", mooted by professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. The theory is based on outcome-driven innovation and suggests that the success of any business, whether relating to a product or service provider, revolves around designing the best solution to fulfil the job that the customer requires. It argues that people buy products or services to get a certain job done. If companies understand what that job is – rather than focusing on the product or the customer – thay are more likely to come up with a saleable solution to complete the task required.

The theory explains customer behaviour in opting for one solution over another. Notice the suggestion of choice: it is as if the customer “hires” that product to perform a specific job or task and if it fails to do that job, the customer "fires" it and searches for another. Jobs are not necessarily merely about the functional; they have significant social and emotional dimensions, which can be even more powerful than functional ones.

Many companies thrive after simply rethinking their solutions through the lens of this theory. A powerful example that I like is that of a mid-sized building company that struggled to sell compact houses, despite numerous aesthetic features. Only after they rethought the "job" their customers were hiring them to do, they started to make a progress. Which, in this case, translated to: "Help me move my life forward” instead of the obvious “I want to buy a new house”.

Governments worldwide can compete with each other, as well as with businesses – and they should

To fix this, the company began to understand the obstacles their customers faced when trying to move to another place and leave their old life behind. So, instead of offering a purely functional solution (a house), they created a solution composed of a seamless experience, free of obstacles and anxiety. For example, they offered six months of free storage to help clients, enabling them to decide with ease what possessions to keep and what to leave behind, minus the added pressure of moving at the same time. With such a thoughtful approach, the company met the needs of its customers and were hired over and over again, leaving the competition far behind.

But what does this have to do with the UAE's service centres? Simply put, it raises the question: is it possible to apply the “jobs to be done” theory to government work?

The theory was built, shaped, improved and enhanced over decades to help businesses stand out from the competition. Governments, unlike businesses, don’t usually have competitors or face disruptive forces because many core governmental services are still solely provided by governments themselves. That leaves the customer with a narrow scope of options. But let’s broaden our thinking a little. Governments worldwide can compete with each other, as well as with businesses – and they should.

The competition which the leadership of the UAE announced does not have at its heart the need to pit local entities against one another. It is about competing globally, and making UAE services the best in the world.

It underscores the fact that the biggest competition UAE government departments face isn’t from within but with other government entities worldwide. Global trends, like digital nomads, will test government services and only those who do the “job” better than others will be hired.

Najla Alkaabi is a former assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of International Co-operation and Development and an expert in digital transformation and innovation

Updated: August 21, 2019 06:52 PM

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