The quality of public services and crisis situations

Julio Gómez Pomar. Director. <a href="http://www.ie.edu/eng/claustro/claustro_centros_detalle.asp?id=18">PWC/IE Business School Centre for the Public Sector</a>

21 March 2007

In Spain, the public usually expects the government to react swiftly in times of crisis, but that doesn’t always happen. A new agency should help remedy that shortcoming.

Under the State Agencies Act 28/2006 of 18 July, Spain’s 2007 State Budget has allotted the necessary funds for setting up a State Agency for the Assessment of Public Policy and Service Quality. Since the March 2004 general elections, Spain’s two main political parties have made the political commitment to improve the quality of public services. Both the PSOE and the PP pledged to create the Agency for the Assessment of Public Policies, which would guarantee quality standards for each of the different levels of the public administration.

Unfortunately, the culture of quality and the evaluation of public policy results are still not part of our cultural makeup. Whereas in recent decades Anglo-Saxon countries have reformed their public administrations to render them more transparent, more effective and more citizen-focused, we in Spain still labour under the burden of the French administrative tradition. Thus we find it much more difficult to assimilate a new concept of public service.

A crisis situation is possibly the most complicated scenario for evaluating quality and a company’s commitment to achieving it. Dramatic situations, such as the terrorist attacks in December 2007 in Barajas airport and in March 2004 in the Atocha train station, test the ability of a society and its administration to react. In both these cases, the way in which public services worked in coordination with the various administrations was praise worthy.

However, there are many other situations which, fortunately, are not as dramatic as a terrorist attack, but which still require different public administrations to decide whether or not to react. If they decide in favour, they then have to determine how. Recent cases, such as those of Air Madrid and Forum Filatélico, or other earlier crises such as the Prestige oil tanker disaster and the Toxic Syndrome-- the Social Security system is still processing documents on the latter case-- are examples in which the authorities hesitated before acting. Indeed, they wavered, wondering whether they should get involved and to what extent. This apprehension led them to question whether their responsibility should be limited or if it should go beyond a mere first reaction to embrace a broader range of problems.

These crises have underscored, at least in my opinion, how important it is in the 21st century that governments and public administrations not shirk their responsibility. It is true that most crisis situations are not comparable, though a common denominator does appear to emerge: When the government and local administrations delay their response, they tarnish their public image. Therefore, it is a choice, not of deciding whether to act and to what extent, but rather of whether to react well and quickly, or badly and late. Nor is it a question of ideology, such as interventionism versus liberalism. I think it is a problem of fairness and of the expectations that citizens have of their public administration.

In many cases, it all boils down to a question of whether the administration has a subsidiary responsibility because it failed to inspect, supervise or authorise certain activities. Or it is up to citizens to file the corresponding civil or criminal complaints, which raises the question of whether the administration should spend public money to compensate private individuals for the damage caused. Rightly or wrongly, most citizens consider that, in situations of this calibre, the administration is expected to "do something". This "something" can be carried out efficiently or badly. The administration can opt to do as little as possible and just squeak by, or it can accept that it has made a commitment to quality and is expected to respond effectively to the crisis situation at hand. I am of the latter opinion. I think citizens and above all users expect the administration to solve the problems arising from a crisis, and they expect it to do so from beginning to end.

Administrations face the task of preparing action protocols for these situations. Risk-management policies and crisis-analysis systems must be introduced in every institution susceptible to an emergency situation. When catastrophe strikes, administrations will have to act, and they will have to do so effectively. This is another of the huge challenges to be faced by the State Agency of Assessment.

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