By Jeremy Rosner and Kelly Rincon

When incumbent politicians ask us how to get re-elected, the simplest answer is: “govern well.” Of course, with public budgets constrained and resentment toward government growing, both in the US and many places abroad, that’s not easy. In part, public leaders worldwide need to find new ways to make citizens and taxpayers feel they are getting great service and value from the public institutions they are supporting. 

The McKinsey Quarterly recently noted: “Although some people take offense when governments adopt the language of business – for instance, by referring to citizens as customers – citizens in many countries clearly do want to be treated as valued customers of the public services they pay for through taxes.”

We see that in our work across the US and around the world – citizens increasingly expect their governments to provide the kind of fast, attentive, individualized service they get from Amazon or Starbucks, instead of the maddening bureaucratic bog they have to slog through in most local Department of Motor Vehicle offices.

The initial glitches in the website for enrollment in “Obamacare” provide a potent reminder of the political stakes if leaders fail to meet such expectations. That debacle (as the administration itself described it) likely cost President Obama 3-5 points in job approval rating in just 3 weeks (though the long-term impact on his standing is unclear).

In the US and all around the world, we have been impressed with the innovations some governments and leaders are developing to create a sense of world-class customer service in the public organizations they oversee – and we have seen how their innovations help them to sustain public support and improve their chances for re-election.

The Republic of Georgia’s “Public Service Halls”

One of the most impressive initiatives we have seen for creating first-rate customer service in the public sector is in the former Soviet state of Georgia. The former President, Mikheil Saakashvili, helped transform what was virtually a failed state in 2004 into one of the world’s most exciting centers of public sector innovation and service.

I’ll never forget my visit to one of their motor vehicle offices in 2009. The contrast to its counterparts in the US was dramatic. The Georgian DMV office was gleaming, high-tech, and well-organized with no waiting lines. In less than 10 minutes, the staff took my information, processed my application, and handed me a Georgian driver’s license.

But Saakashvili and his government did something even more revolutionary. They created “public service halls,” which bring together in one place some 300 public services – even though many come under different ministries. My own local government in Montgomery County, Maryland has a pretty good system for consolidating access to services – a “311” telephone line that can provide quick help with a range of services, from road repairs to bulk trash pick-up. But it doesn’t come close to what Georgia has created.

Inside the ultra-modern public service hall in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital (photo above), it looks like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange – a huge, open area, with different hubs of activity for different services, all with computer-armed staff quickly helping citizens on everything from getting a birth certificate to registering a home sale. For many services – like getting a passport – people can submit an application online and then use a drive-through window to pick up their finished document. It’s as easy as going to McDonald's.

Moldova’s e-Governance Initiatives

Moldova, another former Soviet republic that lies between Ukraine and Romania, is one of many countries taking big steps to move public services online. Doing so reduces opportunities for corruption – a big problem in Moldova and other countries in that region – while also promoting a sense of transparency, elevating public trust in government, and eliminating the waiting lines that were a ubiquitous feature of Soviet days.

Now, through the country’s Open Data Portal, citizens are able to electronically access information across various public services. And a new electronic payment platform called “m-pay” enables citizens to pay for various government services online or at local kiosks, which have been placed in community centers across the country. 

Other countries on the cutting edge of e-governance include New Zealand, Spain, Colombia, and Rwanda. Rwanda’s government has applied this concept to help support its business sector. In 2009, as part of its “eRwanda Project,” which is supported by the World Bank, Rwanda’s government introduced eSoko, an app that provides agricultural commodity prices through mobile phones. This enables farmers and traders to monitor prices so they can determine the best timing and location to sell their products, while also helping the Ministry of Agriculture paperlessly collect and track commodity prices.

Giving Taxpayers a Personalized Sense of their Return

The need to improve customer service will ultimately drive governments to find ways to prove to taxpayers that they are personally getting a good return for their money. Already, the Social Security Administration in the US sends taxpayers individualized letters showing how much they have paid into the system, and how much they can expect to receive as a result upon retirement (which helps to sustain the useful myth that people’s individual “contributions” to Social Security are sitting in an account somewhere, gaining value, until the day they retire).

But in a similar vein, some global NGOs that work on alleviating poverty and hunger have begun enabling donors to track the impact of their contributions online – down to watching a bag of food being delivered in some distant rural village, online, in real time.

The driving concept is the same: if you can identify and see the impact of your contribution, you are more likely to feel satisfaction about providing the money.

Increasingly, smart governments and public leaders will find ways to provide detailed, individualized accountings of what taxpayers are funding – which park and street improvements in their area, or which new teacher hires in their local school.

All these approaches can help leaders improve governance, make citizens feel better served by their public programs – and make it more likely that voters in the next election will support the public leaders who created these service-focused programs.

Jeremy Rosner is Executive Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global consultancy on public opinion research and campaign management. Rosner leads the company's international campaign practice and has advised dozens of world leaders, including President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Victor Yushchenko, and President Mikheil Saakashvili. 

Kelly Rincon is an analyst at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Rincon works for the company’s international practice, and has worked for clients in Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean.

Image: The new public service hall in the Republic of Georgia. Photo credit: Giorgi Shermazanashvili

Led by Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, GQR Global Political Update is a platform for expert international campaign consultants to analyze new global trends, challenges, and developments in their field.