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ARCHIVED - Quality Service - Who is the Client? - A Discussion Paper (Guide XII)

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The government aims to improve levels of client satisfaction with the delivery of government services. In the wide array of government relationships, however, the meaning of the term "client" is not always clear.

This paper defines a client as the direct recipient of "products" - in government's case, that often means services - who engages in transactions with service providers to get access to those services.

There is a considerable difference between clients and stakeholders. There is also a difference between clients and citizens, since clients of government services are not always citizens.

Client satisfaction is a function of policy, products and services, and service delivery. The quality services initiative, which is the stimulant for this series of guides, concentrates primarily on the service delivery process, while providing useful information on developing policy and defining products.

Policy making often involves balancing the diverse views and interests of clients and stakeholders. Service delivery processes provide clients with services that policy has determined the organization will make available.

The concept of "client" applies to both internal and external service recipients. Client satisfaction is a mindset, a value framework, and organizations must maintain this mindset internally if they wish to satisfy their external clients consistently.

Organizations that provide regulatory, enforcement, and inspection services can improve their responsiveness and encourage voluntary compliance by applying principles of quality service and client orientation. The benefits to the organization, its clients, and its stakeholders are significant.

In concert with Program Review and related initiatives to "get government right," organizations are working to improve client satisfaction measurably. By doing so, they aim to increase Canadians' confidence in the Government of Canada and in the Public Service.

This guide is intended to help all public service employees develop that common understanding, so that together we can measurably improve client satisfaction.


The quality services initiative is designed to measurably improve client satisfaction with government service delivery. The word "client" can have many different meanings in the public sector. This guide has been prepared to help public service employees become more client focussed in their service delivery by giving them a clearer and more consistent understanding of

  • the meaning of the word "client" in service delivery;
  • the concepts of internal and external clients; and
  • client satisfaction in regulatory and enforcement environments.

The public sector must balance the interests of many parties whose ideas, needs, and desires may differ. It may not be easy to figure out who the client is, particularly when these interests conflict.

Satisfaction with service delivery differs from satisfaction with material products. A closer look at the nature of client satisfaction with service delivery may help organizations identify their clients more clearly, which may help them improve levels of client satisfaction.

Some organizations may wonder whether they have clients at all. For instance, several government departments exist to serve other departments, and do not deal directly with the public. How does the idea of "client" apply to these situations? Does Treasury Board Secretariat, for example, have clients? In another example, consider information management. This is an important support function, but information managers do not deal with the public. Does this function have clients?

Other organizations, such as regulation and enforcement agencies, may feel that the idea of client focus, which is gaining acceptance in many parts of the public sector, is at odds with their role. Does the idea make sense in inspection situations? In law enforcement? In regulatory compliance?


Complexity of Government Relationships

Government acts on behalf of its citizens. In one sense, citizens as a collective are the government's client. Yet individual citizens relate to government services in a number of ways - sometimes as direct recipients, sometimes as affected parties, sometimes as taxpayers concerned with the way their resources are spent.

The federal government also relates to a wide range of groups and institutions: provincial, municipal, and international governing bodies; major business, labour, and environmental interest groups; and others. All of these organizations have legitimate interests that must find their place in the government agenda.

In addition, government sometimes serves non-citizens and parties outside Canada, such as international governing bodies, foreign businesses, tourists, and people applying to become immigrants.

The work of government itself is a complex mixture of policy making, regulation and enforcement, administration, inspection, and service delivery. These functions must balance the often-conflicting views of interested and affected people, whose needs, values, and beliefs cover a very wide spectrum.

Citizens as Stakeholders

Perhaps the term "stakeholder" best describes the interests of society at large. Property owners beyond child-rearing age, for example, are not clients of the education system, although they are undoubtedly affected by the outputs of that system, and have interests in the taxes they pay towards that system. Similarly, those who contribute to unemployment insurance but who have never been claimants are not clients of that system, but they have an interest in the system at many levels.

Stakeholders have an important role to play in determining government policy. Consensus among all stakeholders is rare, particularly if some of them represent single-issue interest groups. Stakeholders can and should influence government priorities, policies, and programs. The policy development and political arenas balance stakeholder concerns.

Citizens as stakeholders probably share one common perspective: a concern with taxation levels. Here again, their interest is not as individual consumers of government services, but as the source of funding for government expenditures. Their interest is direct and significant, but they are not clients or recipients. They are stakeholders and affected parties.


From time to time, individuals will use certain government services. Usually, they obtain these services through government because there is no alternate source. Passports, unemployment insurance, and Canada Pension are examples. These transactions, in most cases, are not commercial; no competitors provide the same service, and the services are funded through tax revenues, although user fees may recover some portion of costs.

Private-sector organizations can often identify their clients by determining who pays for a particular product or service. While this concept can be useful in the public sector, and may have increasing relevance there as cost recovery and alternative service delivery approaches develop, it does not always apply. People who receive social benefits support, for example, do so at the expense of others. Yet the benefits recipient is the client: he or she applies for the service and deals with the service provider. There are many similar examples in the public sector of program clients who are not the people who pay for a particular service.

Nonetheless, it may become more important in the public sector to define clients by looking at who pays for a particular service. Governments are beginning to recover more costs from the people they serve directly, so they are under increased pressure to be accountable to those they serve - and charge. People paying for services must feel those services are relevant, and must be satisfied with the way these services are delivered.

People who use government services directly are clients. We use the term "client" rather than "customer" to help differentiate between public-sector and private-sector transactions.

Definition of Client

It is doubtful that any single definition adequately describes the complete scope of relationships between government and all the parties government affects.

In the context of being client focussed, the term "client" means direct recipients of government services, who get access to those services by dealing directly with service providers. Clients experience what it is like to register for a GST number. Clients know what is involved in obtaining a passport. Clients go through the application process to receive UIC benefits. Through these direct service experiences, or transactions, clients decide whether they are satisfied with service delivery.

The term "stakeholder" is a broader definition encompassing all of the relationships through which government interacts with parties affected by government operations. Satisfaction of stakeholders is no less important than client satisfaction; in some cases, it may be more important. However, the processes through which governments balance stakeholder concerns are quite different from the direct transactions through which it serves clients. Sometimes, the terms "indirect clients" or "secondary clients" are used to describe stakeholders.

This distinction has to do with separating policy from operational delivery. Diagrammatically, it might look something like Figure 1.

"Policy" has to do with setting objectives and priorities, specifying expected outcomes, and allocating resources. "Operations" has to do with providing services, and managing the resources devoted to these tasks.

Other jurisdictions wrestle with the same dilemma. The following quote from a publication of the Management Advisory Board of the Australian government puts it well:

Once the nature of the services is specified and resources allocated it is the responsibility of the Public Service and its staff to see that the services desired by the Government are delivered effectively, efficiently and in a timely fashion, with proper courtesy and sensitivity and with full regard to the legal rights and entitlements of clients. For the Public Service this is the nub of client focus and service quality.

There are many instances where clients are also stakeholders, citizens, and taxpayers. There are also instance where the beneficiary is someone other than the client. An example might be the approval process for new drugs, where the beneficiary is the public, but the client is the pharmaceutical industry. Individuals may well have roles at both ends of the spectrum. Their different roles are recognized through different processes. Improving client satisfaction with service delivery is a very different issue from balancing conflicting interests in the formulation of policy. Being clear about these differences in roles may help organizations clarify the concept of "client" in service delivery.


What constitutes satisfaction? The literature pertaining to both the private and public sectors on this question is considerable. As it pertains to government services, three elements appear to be central.

The "What" in Client Satisfaction - Policy

First, satisfaction comes from establishing service priorities. This is the policy domain, through which government decides what services it will offer. At this stage, the government balances conflicting demands for services and resources to best meet the requirements of all stakeholders. It also determines the "what" of government operations, through the political process and through internal decision-making processes such as Program Review.

The "What" in Client Satisfaction - Services and Products

Once the government makes policy decisions, it determines what products or services it will deliver to meet policy objectives.

Clients form expectations based on their awareness of these products and services. Unemployment benefits are available under certain conditions. Immigration applications are approved using specific criteria. Passports are available to eligible applicants. Canada Post provides coast-to-coast postal services. These statements are the operating expression of policy in specific deliverable terms. One might think of these as the "products" of government operations.

Clients expect these "products" to be available to them "as advertised," and they will be satisfied only if they receive the "product" they expect. If the client receives a tax refund that is lower than he is entitled to, he will not be completely satisfied, no matter how quickly or politely the cheque was delivered!

Figure 1

The "How" in Client Satisfaction - Service Delivery

The third component of satisfaction has to do with the delivery process itself. Once policy has been determined - eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance, for example - client satisfaction depends on the delivery process.

Many aspects of the delivery process affect clients' perceptions and their level of satisfaction. These might include

  • access to case workers;
  • the simplicity of the application process;
  • the nature of clients' interactions with public service employees while receiving the "product."

The service delivery process is quite distinct from the "product," although they are closely linked in terms of client satisfaction. Just as a client will be unhappy with a defective product, even if it is delivered quickly and politely, a client will also be unsatisfied if an organization delivers a satisfactory product through a difficult, confrontational process.

To satisfy clients, therefore, organizations must focus on the delivery process itself and ensure that the service transaction produces results to which the client is entitled, in ways that meet the client's expectations for service delivery.

Front-line personnel do, in fact, frequently serve both clients and citizens at the same time. For example, in assisting an applicant, front-line people serve the applicant as a client. At the same time, they serve the citizen by ensuring applicants who are approved meet the eligibility criteria. Balancing these interests is a delicate matter, and places unique demands for sensitivity and diplomacy on front-line service delivery employees.

Service delivery often involves personal interaction between the recipient and the service provider. Unlike a production process, the "service" cannot be examined and quality tested before it is delivered. Client satisfaction with service delivery is created through the interaction itself. The expected outcome of a transaction, and the process used to reach that outcome, jointly determine client satisfaction. It is here that the quality services initiative has its influence.

Overall satisfaction is a joint function of policy, product, and delivery process. Program Review focuses on policy and product; it will determine "what" the government should provide and what services it will use to do so. The quality services initiative determines "how" the Public Service will deliver the services.

This is not to undervalue the important flow of information between the service delivery process and the policy and program definition processes. The organization learns critical information about its clients during the service transaction, and it should capture that information and provide it to those who determine policy and define products. However, it is not the role of those who deliver services to change policy or product. Nor is it the role of the service delivery process to address the concerns of all stakeholders. That would place an unreasonable and unrealistic burden on front-line personnel.

No single initiative is likely to address all of the issues involved for all of the participants and all of their interests. The quality services initiative can, however, improve client satisfaction by smoothing the delivery process, and by feeding the intelligence gained during client transactions into the policy and product development functions.

Client Satisfaction in Regulatory and Enforcement Environments

The shift towards a client-centred focus has particular sensitivities in the areas of enforcement and regulation. Traditionally, particularly in enforcement, government's use of coercive authority to force compliance has created adversarial, rather than service-oriented, relationships.

Service Delivery and Obligation Delivery

The writings of Malcolm Sparrow of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government speak directly to the dilemma. In his book, Imposing Duties, he observes that it is impossible to separate service delivery and regulation in government, because many agencies are involved in both activities. But, he adds, "some agencies of government are much more heavily involved than others in using the authority of the state, when necessary, to make citizens act the way society deems appropriate. These agencies have special problems maintaining a plausible image as public servants rather than public oppressors."

It is hard to consider enforcement and regulation in the context of customer-driven government, Sparrow adds, because the primary clients of enforcement actions are society at large. The polluters, tax evaders, or other lawbreakers who must deal with enforcement officers are also clients, but they are usually unwilling ones.

He points out, however, that any agency that tries to serve the public better will likely improve its public image, extend its range of contacts, and receive better cooperation from the public. For those reasons, regulatory and enforcement agencies should develop a stronger service orientation.

That message is particularly applicable to the quality services initiative. A service orientation does much to encourage people to fulfil their obligations as citizens voluntarily. Enforcement can also promote voluntary compliance. Certainly, both clients and enforcement agencies would welcome a greater focus on voluntary measures and less reliance on coercive measures.

Revenue Canada, by making it easier for people to comply with its rules and by improving service to tax filers, has had significant impact. There can be little doubt that Revenue Canada's client-centred approach has earned the department much goodwill, enhanced voluntary compliance, and improved the working atmosphere for front-line staff.

Similarly, it makes sense to be client oriented at border crossings. Travellers undergoing examination, whether they are in compliance with the law or not (and the vast majority are), deserve courteous, timely, respectful service that helps them continue their journey. In another example, drivers who break speed limits are no less deserving of polite service. It is highly likely that, even though one may not enjoy the experience, one may gain respect for the enforcement official if one is treated respectfully. A pleasant encounter may increase voluntary compliance.

Regulatory organizations encounter similar circumstances. The ultimate beneficiary of an approval process is society at large. Yet, by adopting a client focus, regulatory organizations can help those seeking approval to comply with regulations as easily as possible, without compromising the regulation involved. The Canadian Standards Association approves new products, Health Canada approves new drugs, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada approves new processes: these situations all involve transactions between regulators and their clients. Regulators can apply the principles of the quality services initiative to improve client satisfaction with these transactions.

Policing experiments in many communities in Canada and in other jurisdictions have provided abundant evidence that the benefits Sparrow talks about are real and achievable. The Peel Regional Police in Ontario, for instance, received a Canada Award for Excellence Certificate of Merit in 1995, as part of the annual recognition program of the National Quality Institute.

While the cultural shift may be more challenging in some enforcement and regulatory environments, it seems clear that heightened client sensitivity can make a real difference to client satisfaction, voluntary compliance, community goodwill, and the atmosphere of the workplace.

Figure 2


The ideas of client service and client satisfaction apply to all public service employees and all functions. Client satisfaction is a mindset, an attitude, a value framework for the way we work. It does not matter whether those we serve are inside or outside the Public Service - the concept remains the same.

All public service employees produce outputs intended to serve recipients. Whether the recipient is a pensioner receiving a cheque, or a co-worker who depends on the work you do to do her work, the idea of "client" still holds. Whoever receives your work is engaged in a service delivery transaction with you, in which you are the service provider and he is your client.

Whether we are considering an organization or an individual, the work process looks like the diagram in Figure2.

We take inputs - for example, our own skills and knowledge - and do something with them to produce outputs that go to those who use our work. Our work exists to meet the needs of whoever receives the outputs we produce. The value that we add is reflected in the degree to which our outputs satisfy our clients. This model is true for all work, and for all organizational levels and forms. It may seem simplistic, but it is extremely helpful to focus on what you do for whom, and the extent to which recipients are satisfied with what you do for them.

Internal Client Satisfaction - A Route to External Client Satisfaction

The quality movement has been around for many years. The literature on the subject is considerable and growing. One consistent theme, even among experts who disagree on other matters, is that the concept of client satisfaction must be applied to internal clients if organizations are to satisfy external clients.

How we perceive our work environment determines how we work. If our work environment is callous, insensitive, unresponsive, and apparently uncaring, we will inevitably adopt similar attitudes and values. These values and attitudes will become part of the culture, part of the way people work. A service orientation does not begin at the point where the organization interacts with its external clients. It is created by behaviours within the organization, and by leadership that models what the organization expects, requires, and values. It is simply not possible to create sustained external client satisfaction through an internal environment not dedicated to the same ethic.

It is easy to imagine the desirability of a workplace in which each employee is treated as a client worthy of being satisfied, and where all employees' work is designed to serve the needs of those who depend on it. A workplace built to continuously improve internal client satisfaction is well placed to serve its external communities in the same way.


The government with its emphasis on client-focussed service delivery seeks measurable improvements in client satisfaction with the delivery of government services.

This means a focus on the delivery of services to direct recipients through the transactions with the service provider that the client experiences.

The concept of client satisfaction in these terms applies equally to internal and external clients. A strong case can be made that the improvement of external delivery begins with improvements to internal client satisfaction. It is unlikely that organizations can continue to satisfy external clients in an environment that does not value the same attitudes and characteristics in its internal behaviour.

While this focus is probably most visible in areas of traditional service delivery, it also applies to regulatory and enforcement functions, both internal and external.

The quality services initiative embraces the delivery of government services - the "how." It does not directly affect the "what" of government services - that is, what services the organization chooses to deliver. In conjunction with Program Review and similar initiatives to establish policy and define the "what," the quality services initiative is a significant undertaking to improve the quality of services and the level of client satisfaction with those services.

Getting Government Right - A Progress Report, published by the Canadian government in March 1996, states, "The first challenge will be to continue to organize service delivery from the perspective of those receiving the services. This will mean providing services in a manner that is convenient to the client, efficient, and flexible."

This challenge is being addressed with this series of publications. It is hoped that this guide will help public service employees understand the use of the term "client" as it applies to implementing client-focussed service delivery.