Why are public sector departments so obsessed with being “partners” to the organisation?

It has become commonplace for everyone in business to describe themselves as “partners.” The received wisdom being that if staff who see themselves as part of a bigger whole will be happier and more productive. Sometimes this perspective is perfectly valid. The near 400,000 people who worked on the Apollo programme all shared in the common mission to put man on the moon. Nowhere is this more plainly demonstrated by the janitor, who, when asked by the visiting JFK about his role at NASA, simply replied “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” Being a partner is perfectly plausible when your collective goal can be summarised so succinctly. Unfortunately the “goal” in most public sector organisations is not so easy to summarise.

The unintended consequence of this obsession with partnerships is that the word “supplier” has become a dirty word. This is not helpful. The supplier/customer relationship is the correct way for internal departments to operate for a number of reasons:

  • It encourages the right attitude: A customer-centric business survives and thrives because it is focused on improving the service it offers. It drives an attitude of self improvement. It is hard to encourage the right attitude if you don’t routinely look at the needs of your customers.

  • It drives the right behaviour. Language drives behaviour. If you use the wrong language to describe your role, you will use the wrong KPIs to measure your effectiveness. If you measure the wrong KPIs, you will be encouraged to pursue the wrong behaviour. Procurement for example values cost-cutting over everything else. At face value saving the organisation money is a good thing, but it is not if the byproduct of cutting a particular supplier negatively impacts on the organisation’s ability to deliver value to its own customers. Procurement therefore needs to focus on the value of the services it purchases, not the bottomline cost.

  • You ask the right questions. Suppliers ask their customers for feedback. If you don’t ask them what they want you will not improve, or even worse, you will not deliver any value to your customers whatsoever.

  • It secures your future. Building on the above point, if you don’t see yourself as a supplier that needs to deliver value in order to retain your customers, you run the risk of having no value to the organisation and being shut down.

Ultimately, everything you deliver is a service to someone else. Partners and suppliers are not mutually exclusive. You will still be a partner in the organisation, but ultimately, everyone is a supplier because everyone has a customer that they serve. If you embrace this mindset, the quality of service you deliver to your internal “customers” will improve dramatically and you will be more effective than you ever have been.

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