Select Committee on Public Administration Twelfth Report

3  The Charter Mark and user satisfaction with public services

18. One area of the Citizen's Charter programme that the Government has re-evaluated in recent times is the Charter Mark. Bernard Herdan, former Chief Executive of the UK Passport Agency, was commissioned by the Cabinet Office in 2005 to review the operation of the Charter Mark scheme and its relevance to effective public service delivery. Following consideration of the Herdan review's findings, the Government in March 2008 launched a new standard to replace the Charter Mark: the 'Customer Service Excellence' scheme. This section considers the history of the Charter Mark, the findings of the Herdan review, and subsequent developments. In particular, it examines the Herdan review's proposal that a revitalised Charter Mark or equivalent scheme (such as the new Customer Service Excellence standard) should focus on ensuring user satisfaction with public services.

The Charter Mark: background

19. The Charter Mark was an integral part of the Citizen's Charter programme. It was launched in 1992 as an award for organisations that had achieved excellent customer service in the public sector. Charter Mark organisations had to demonstrate that they met the Citizen's Charter principles for delivering quality public services. They were also required to display evidence of "customer satisfaction" with the service provided.[18] In the first year of its operation there were 35 Charter Mark award holders; ten years later, in 2002, this figure had grown to 949.[19] At present there are around 1,600 organisations with a Charter Mark, with some 400,000 people working within those organisations. This represents about 7 per cent of the public sector.[20] The Charter Mark scheme will continue to operate until 2011, when the new Customer Service Excellence standard is intended to become the sole award for customer service in the public sector.

20. The most recent Charter Mark criteria are as follows.[21]
Charter Mark criteria (2004)

1. Set standards and perform well

2. Actively engage with your customers, partners and staff

3. Be fair and accessible to everyone and promote choice

4. Continuously develop and improve

5. Use your resources effectively and imaginatively

6. Contribute to improving opportunities and quality of life in the communities you serve

21. Perhaps the most significant change in the nature of the Charter Mark since its inception was the shift from it being a competitive award to a standard of service provision. Initially, public sector bodies competed for the award of a Charter Mark, but this aspect was dropped in 1995 so that any organisation meeting the criteria could gain a Charter Mark. As Bernard Herdan observed in his recent review of the scheme, since 2002 the emphasis has been on using the Charter Mark as a tool for improving responsiveness to service users. It was repositioned as a national standard for customer service excellence—"a benchmark that all should aspire to, rather than a badge to collect".[22]

22. Assessments of the Charter Mark scheme have been broadly positive, although with the caveat that uptake has been disappointingly low. The Public Service Committee believed that the standard of service to users set by the Charter Mark was something to which all public service delivery bodies should aspire: "all public sector organisations which deliver services to the public should aim to win the Charter Mark…they should be expected to gain the award as a matter of course, rather than, as now, as an exception".[23] The Herdan review, meanwhile, found that the Charter Mark had been effective at improving customer service, but that "the relatively low penetration across public services means that the Charter Mark is still not having a major impact in driving up standards".[24]

23. The concern to raise performance, rather than simply to reward good service, was a key conclusion of the Cabinet Office-commissioned review of the Charter Mark.[25] We turn now to consider the review's analysis and findings in light of the new standard for customer service in the public sector.

The Herdan review: the Charter Mark and customer satisfaction

24. Bernard Herdan's report, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services,[26] examined the Charter Mark in the wider context of improving responsiveness to users of public services. It explicitly linked the Charter Mark to the need to secure adequate levels of user satisfaction with public services. Bernard Herdan explained it to us in this way:

    The fundamental thing is to make it [the Charter Mark] much more focused on what it was really there for, which is public service users' satisfaction with what they are getting.[27]

25. The Herdan review's overall view on the Charter Mark was that it had been "something of an unsung success story".[28] Charter Mark holders were generally very positive about the scheme and its effectiveness in raising service standards. Nevertheless, the review concluded that its impact in raising standards across the board had been blunted by low take-up and low public recognition of the scheme. The review also noted a perception, among those that were aware of it, that the Charter Mark was out of date and old-fashioned.[29]

26. The solution prescribed by the Herdan review was to reposition the Charter Mark. The review recommended making the purpose of the Charter Mark simpler and clearer, and linking it much more explicitly to the requirements of service users: "The principal objective of Charter Mark is to improve customer focus—and consequently customer satisfaction—within public services".[30] In other words, the yardstick for judging the success of public services would become their ability to satisfy service users. The Herdan review recommended that all existing Charter Mark criteria not directly relevant to the "key drivers of customer satisfaction" should be dropped.[31] (We consider the issue of user satisfaction in greater detail below.)

27. The Government's response to the Herdan report broadly accepted the analysis that the primary focus of the Charter Mark's successor should be ensuring user satisfaction with public services. The Government pledged that a new standard would set out rigorous obligations on public service providers to "understand the customer", including requirements to measure customer satisfaction.[32] This commitment is evident in the new Customer Service Excellence standard, which contains the following criteria:[33]

Customer Service Excellence criteria (2008)

1. Customer insight: Effectively identifying your customers, consulting them in a meaningful way and efficiently measuring the outcomes of your service are a vital part of this approach. It's not just about being able to collect information; it's about having the ability to use that information.

2. The culture of the organisation: It is challenging for an organisation to build and foster a truly customer-focused culture. To cultivate and embed this there must be a commitment to it throughout an organisation, from the strategic leader to the frontline staff.

3. Information and access: Customers value accurate and comprehensive information that is delivered or available through the most appropriate channel for them. Putting your customer first can be an important step towards providing effective communications.

4. Delivery: How you carry out your business, the outcomes for your customer, and how you manage any problems that arise can determine your organisation's success. Customers' views about the outcomes of your services are just as important as achieving the main indicators your organisation uses to measure its performance. Listening to, and

asking for, comments, feedback and complaints can be a great way to make small adjustments to the way your organisation runs.

5. Timeliness and quality of service: The promptness of initial contact and keeping to agreed timescales is crucial to your customers' satisfaction. However speed can be achieved at the expense of quality, therefore the issue of timeliness has to be combined with quality of service to ensure the best possible result for customers.

28. There is evidence that even without widespread public awareness or promotion, the Charter Mark has been a useful management tool. We consider there remains a need for a standard which promotes excellence in public service provision, particularly one that focuses on the interests and perspectives of service users. We consequently welcome the introduction of the new Customer Service Excellence standard.

Raising service standards and user satisfaction

29. The logic of the Herdan review is that a revamped Charter Mark scheme would improve standards of public service provision—which, in turn, would increase user satisfaction with services:

We received a great deal of evidence, however, that measures of customer satisfaction were problematic for a variety of reasons—raising the question of whether user satisfaction is the most appropriate indicator of successful, high-quality public services.[35]

30. One key criticism of such measures is that they are entirely subjective and can reflect low expectations as much as high quality provision. Age Concern told us that in their experience this is often the case among groups such as those on low incomes, those living in disadvantaged areas or older people:

    Across many services older people tend to report higher customer satisfaction, in spite of other evidence that suggests they frequently receive a worse service than younger people.[36]

31. The tax advice charity TaxAid told us that assessments of user satisfaction may be based on secondary or relatively less important considerations than the quality of service received:

    Sadly, because of the huge complexity of the tax system, "customers" of HMRC (and indeed clients of the charity TaxAid) are not really in a position to judge the key element of service—which in this context is whether they were given the correct information or advice. In our experience of customer surveys, since they have no other basis for making a judgement, clients are more inclined to assess satisfaction on the basis of whether their experience was "pleasant" and whether their adviser had good interpersonal skills.[37]

32. Another difficulty with measures of user satisfaction is that they may not be consistent with broader policy objectives. Tetlow Associates, which has worked with the National Consumer Council and the Local Government Association on developing customer satisfaction measures for local government services, gave us an education-related illustration: students might be satisfied with undemanding coursework, but their longer-term interests and those of society are better served by a more challenging curriculum.[38] More generally, the health charity the Picker Institute, which pioneered the development of patient experience surveys in the UK, argues that 'satisfaction' is an ill-defined concept—there is no agreement about which aspects of user satisfaction should be taken into account or which are the most important.[39]

33. Given these potential difficulties with the use of satisfaction measures, the Picker Institute favours using measures of user experience instead. The national surveys of patients' experiences of health care are a successful example of this approach, and have been used extensively to identify areas where health service provision could be improved.[40] Similarly, Diabetes UK proposes satisfaction measures that are focused on actual outcomes for service users, since in its view "customer satisfaction is not just about satisfaction with the service but about satisfaction in terms of impact on quality of life".[41]

34. Measures of user satisfaction can shed some light on the quality of public service provision. They should, however, be treated with care because they are subjective and are sometimes based on less important considerations than service quality. We agree with the Herdan review that a user focus is essential for any standard aimed at improving public services. We believe, however, that this should be based on measures wider than surveys of user satisfaction. More sophisticated measures—such as those that consider users' experiences of services, or outcomes for service users—are likely to be more effective at enabling organisations to improve public service provision.

35. Other types of data could usefully feed into the service improvement process associated with the new Customer Service Excellence standard. The evaluations of service quality undertaken by various audit, regulatory and inspection bodies are clearly relevant here, as are the results of benchmarking performance against other services and sectors.[42]

36. We believe there is strong merit in having a tool—such as the Charter Mark or the new Customer Service Excellence scheme—for improving user responsiveness and raising the quality of public services. If it is to be effective at this task, however, we believe that the emphasis should be on securing high standards of service provision. This means that considerations other than user satisfaction will need to be taken into account, including the broader user-focused measures we have already recommended, as well as the results of wider assessments by audit, regulatory and inspection bodies.

37. The importance of achieving and maintaining standards of service provision is also central to the next aspect of the Charter programme we consider—that of people's rights, or entitlements, to minimum standards of public service provision.

18   Cabinet Office, Charter Mark Standard, April 2004, p 20 Back

19   B Herdan, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services: Independent Report from the Review of the Charter Mark Scheme and Measurement of Customer Satisfaction with Public Services, Cabinet Office, June 2006, p 39 Back

20   Q 297 Back

21   Cabinet Office, Charter Mark Standard Back

22   Herdan, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services, p 39 Back

23   Public Service Committee, The Citizen's Charter, para 84 Back

24   Herdan, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services, p 40 Back

25   Ibid, p 16 Back

26   Ibid Back

27   Q 266 Back

28   Herdan, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services, p 4 Back

29   Ibid, pp 47, 49 Back

30   Ibid, p 57 Back

31   Ibid, p 16 Back

32   Cabinet Office, The Customer Voice in Transforming Public Services: The Government Response, December 2006, p 3 Back

33 (see also Cabinet Office, Customer Service Excellence: The Government Standard, March 2008) Back

34   Q 267 Back

35   For example, see Ev 169, 199, 224, 237, 242, 288 Back

36   Ev 169 Back

37   Ev 288 Back

38   Ev 224 Back

39   Ev 242 Back

40   Ev 242-243 Back

41   Ev 237 Back

42   Ev 198 Back

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