“Naive optimism” and mistaken beliefs about improved efficiency and cost savings are major drivers of the adoption of government ‘one stop shops’, a recently published review paper has found.
Misplaced expectations about cost savings don’t just influence decisions but can be damaging, as governments pre-emptively cut budgets and leave new projects without enough money, argues Cosmo Howard of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.
One stop shops “are not a win-win solution for the problems of government service delivery in a complex, fragmented and cost-constrained administrative environment,” says Howard. “Instead, there are important trade-offs in their implementation.”
Differing levels of integration
One stop shops are a sort of government service department store — access to a broad range of services a user might need under one roof, whether physically or virtually. It’s based on the idea of building the entry point around the customer, rather than to align with organisational logic.
It’s appealing for a few reasons. It’s supposed to make life easier for service users, who don’t need to have a machinery of government map in their head to transact with government. In theory, it helps break down government silos, reducing duplication of effort and saving money. And setting up a new customer-facing agency, platform or office is undoubtedly a good way of showing citizens your government is doing something.“Adoption decisions reflect the influence of administrative fashion and opportunism of policy entrepreneurs.”
There are three basic models, with increasing levels of integration. The first is more superficial — a kind of triage service to identify the user’s needs and point them in the direction of the agency or service they need, which is still part of its original organisation. Second is agencies co-locating, so customers can find the main services they need in one location. Third is where users can find all the services they need with one agency. This might mean: creating a new service delivery organisation, or setting up horizontal partnerships between different agencies, and might include non-governmental organisations.
It’s a notion that has gained much attention in recent years, with co-location and service portals in vogue. Centrelink, established in 1997, was an early example. More recently myGov and Service NSW have brought together varied transactions, and down south Service Victoria is currently being created.
While previously the one stop shop needed to have a physical location, advances in technology are making it possible to set it up as a digital platform — though the complexities of social services and digital skills of vulnerable individuals can make it difficult to move away from having a physical presence.
Complexities often downplayed
As with many things governments do, one stop shops don’t tend to be examined “rationally” — “where the costs and benefits of the OSS option are rigorously weighed and compared to other service models” — Howard says:
“Rather, adoption decisions reflect the influence of administrative fashion, combined with opportunistic efforts by policy entrepreneurs or ‘service champions’ to sell OSSs as ‘win-win’ solutions, allegedly enabling the delivery of better services at lower cost.”
Because they tend to be seen as a shiny new solution to a litany of problems, and a nice announceable to boot, the full complexity of the “substantial” and common implementation difficulties does not tend to be fully understood by politicians from the start. When the reform gets tough and technical — it may take up to 15 years to completely finish some transitions — many lose interest, leaving the project without the political will needed to stop the turf wars and other problems that often come out of administrative rearrangements.
Of course, stamping out silos is an easy rallying cry. But there are often good reasons for them to exist. Like any other option, one stop shops involve trade-offs:
“OSSs tend to achieve service integration at the expense of ‘process specialisation’, leading to reduced effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of some services. As a result, implementation is most successful and sustainable when the one-stop shop goal is carefully balanced with a traditional ‘siloed’ approach to service production and delivery.”
Show me the money
Howard’s review of previous studies found no evidence that OSSs save money, despite this being one of their selling points. In fact, they cost quite a bit to set up:
“Physical OSSs need to renovate storefronts or acquire new space; there are also costs for branding and marketing. Significant resources must be expended to reorganise management and staffing structures, and new staff may be required. Training in new processes needs to be designed and delivered. Substantial expenditures are usually required in the development of new ‘back end’ administrative processing systems. If the OSS includes or is primarily organised around a virtual portal, expenditures in web architecture can be very significant.”
This belief that ongoing costs will be lower has led to governments telling agencies to pay for the change out of their normal funding, or cutting budgets pre-emptively. The latter occurred when Centrelink was created, forcing frontline staff to take on larger caseloads.
Under-resourcing frequently forces a choice between focusing on front-end and back-end processes. Politicians inevitably err towards the customer-facing side, so under-development of the business processes that support the whole operation is common.
This, as well as the rush that normally accompanies such big reforms, very often leaves staff without proper before starting with the new system. A lack of time can also be disastrous for fostering collaboration between agencies.
Naturally, these problems undermine the pro-customer rationale for making the change in the first place.
It is hard to say whether one stop shop reforms engender higher customer satisfaction, Howard argues — there is surprisingly little evidence available either way. And despite a consumer-focused culture being a frequently proposed solution to the difficulties of integration, he found that not much work has been done to work out whether this is true, or how to do it well.
Howard concludes that naivety is a significant driver of the uptake of one stop shop models, which often creates its own problems when it comes to the implementation stage. Political and administrative leaders “wrongly assume that fundamentally reorganising the division of service delivery work will be straightforward and will only have positive implications for efficiency,” he says.
While one stop shops are not a bad thing, Howard argues, they need to be adopted more judiciously:
“Service integration is clearly an important public good, especially where vulnerable user populations are concerned. The choice to implement an OSS is often a valid one, but it requires some sacrifice of other service priorities, balancing of conflicting values, or both.”