Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Perfromance Improvement and Customer Satisfaction as a Focus of Publis Service Reform: Trends and Challenges in Africa

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Perfromance Improvement and Customer Satisfaction as a Focus of Publis Service Reform: Trends and Challenges in Africa

Article excerpt


As a reaction to the inherent weaknesses of over-arching approaches to public service reform, attention is gradually shifting to the construction of low- to medium-range models depicting conditions under which otherwise rule-bound, change-resisting, and slow-moving bureaucratic organizations might be transformed into entrepreneurial and customer-oriented entities. This rests on the assumption that the contemporary global shift toward liberalisation would do for the evaluation of public goods what the interplay of supply and demand forces in a free market does for the price of tradable goods.

Yet, the assumption of a free market for public goods is being increasingly questioned. The "customer" concept, in particular, is perceived by some scholars as either inapplicable to the government setting or downright subversive of the democratic norm of accountability. This article also identifies a number of factors that combine to stand the market on its head and, by so doing, to frustrate the best laid out customer service plans in government. Among these factors are the prevailing "market culture," the devaluation and/or distortion of basic management information, and the asymmetrical relationship between "supply" and "demand."

At the same time, however, this article argues that, in the context of Africa where democracy is still at a nascent stage, the "customer" focus presents a credible response to concerns about political and public accountability. Besides providing a few case studies in the performance of service delivery systems and assessing efforts at launching customer service initiatives as part of public-sector reform programmes, this

article examines some of the preconditions for the inauguration and successful implementation of customer service programmes in the African pubic service.


Tracking the relationship between supply and demand has been the dominant concern in economics since its establishment as a discipline. By identifying the point at which the demand for, and the supply of, a particular commodity, both reaching an "equilibrium," the economist can determine the market price of the tradable good. One underlying assumption of economics (particularly its liberal wing) is the competition among individual suppliers for the patronage of individual consumers. Factors extraneous to the market sometimes intervene to impede "perfect competition" but the free market has in-built mechanisms to correct the anomalies.

In spite of its weaknesses, the market model has proved highly effective in analyzing transactions between and among suppliers and customers of goods and services. Indeed, as an analytic tool, the model's appeal has in recent years extended beyond the free market to the not-so-free market for public goods. In contrast to the 1980s when it was fashionable to dismiss the entire public sector as wasteful and self-serving, it is being increasingly felt that "market testing" offers a better way of assessing the relevance and contributions of the public sector.


Choice is critical to our understanding of the operation of the market model. Yet, as far as the public realm is concerned, it (choice) is one concept that tends to defy definition and, for the same reason, to block understanding. In private business transactions, the individual makes a choice when s/he backs up her/his demand with money. In the public sector, however, choice or demand (howsoever defined) takes a different form. In contrast to the consumer of tradable goods who makes a choice as an individual, the "citizen-consumer" sometimes finds certain choices made for her/him by entities external to her- or him-self and, instead of "paying" with money resorts to surrogates.

One reason Pagnato (1997:397) finds the customer concept problematic I government is what he terms "the disconnection between services provided and payment for those services. …

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