Transforming public services by treating each other better

July 1, 2024 | 04:59 pm PT
To Thuc Researcher
I particularly enjoy visiting train stations in whichever cities I visit.

Part of the reason is my profession: I’m a tunnel designer. Another reason is my fond memories of train stations in Russia, where I used to study. I usually bring a camera to whatever station I’m visiting, and I just stroll around.

The last time I returned home, I took my daughter to experience the new metro system in Hanoi. The overall experience was pleasant, until one minor incident on our way back.

I had purchased a ticket, and I walked to the platform of the opposite route. Seeing this, an employee approached me and asked me to head out of the terminal to buy a new ticket because I had switched platforms. I was taken aback. Everywhere I go, as long as I buy a ticket and have not left the terminal, I can move freely within the terminal.

Surprised as I was, I fully understand that regulations are different everywhere, and happily bought new tickets for both me and my daughter. After all, the metro tickets in Vietnam are also subsidized by the government, so they are very affordable. However, I was very displeased with the attitude of the aforementioned employee, who automatically adopted very harsh language and treated us like illegal free riders, despite my efforts in explaining our honest errors. At the end, I just accepted that I was technically wrong, and bid my silence.

My daughter, however, was evidently agitated. She proclaimed to never board the metro in Vietnam ever again. I tried to explain to her that the issue was one-off and individualistic, rather than systemic.

A few days later, my father asked me to join him for a session down at his condominium gym. He wanted to take a picture to commemorate his 75th birthday. He was no longer as healthy as he was. Walking could be difficult for him sometimes, so I had to walk beside him to provide him support. Nevertheless, he would like to post photos of him being active to show to family members and friends on social media.

As I do not technically live at the condominium, I do not have free access to the gym like my father does. As I approached the receptionist to buy a one-session ticket, one employee gave me free access.

I asked him why I was granted this special treatment, the employee said: "You are holding a camera and wearing normal winter clothes. I know that you're not here to work out."

"We knew every frequent visitor to the gym. We would not mind if you wanted to experience the gym for one session. If you're happy, you can buy a ticket later," he said.

I do not want to discuss the monetary values of the train ticket or the gym pass, both of which were very minor. However, the hospitality I experienced in the two occasions were starkly different.

Negative experiences with public services in Vietnam have been common for me. Every time I do paperwork, I meet public officers who treat me with holier-than-thou attitudes, as if I were a naughty student asking permission from a stern professor.

Most public services in Vietnam are not free. As citizens pay for a service, they have a right to demand a certain quality of service. Even when some services are subsidized by the government, I believe that the government also wishes to provide positive experiences for its citizens.

There is a stronger emphasis on customer service quality by the private sector compared to the public sector. Public officials realize that they have the stronger end of an imbalance of power between them and other citizens: citizens need public officials for services, while public officials are not dependent on citizens for their salaries.

If this imbalance continues, I believe that the government will need to continue to subsidize public services in the long term.

While citizens still pay taxes and service fees, they are not typically seen as customers by public service providers. Citizens come to public offices, only to be received by grumpy service providers.

In 2022, Vietnam’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began tracking the Satisfaction Index of Public Administrative Services (SIPAS). In 2023, the second year on record, satisfactory levels have generally improved, from 80.08% to 82.66%. Despite this improvement, there is a large gap between the satisfaction of public and private services.

To bridge this gap, I believe there is a simple solution. Besides professional expertise, public officials need to receive training in communication and professionalism. When public officials adopt a more pleasant attitude, which can be as simple as a smile, both service receivers and providers will have more pleasant encounters.

The service sector by itself is demanding and stressful. There is no need to add the extra pressure of grumpy countenances. Being respectful and enthusiastic and being professional can go well together.

On one rainy day some time ago, I took a taxi to the outer provinces. Upon stepping into the taxi, the driver showed evident displeasure seeing my shoes covered with mud, which was somewhat unavoidable despite my cleaning efforts. On the way back, another driver was much more enthusiastic and did not mind at all.

I asked the latter driver about why there were such differences. He said that my driver in the morning was likely just an independent driver who changed between taxi companies, while he, my driver in the evening, was a full-time driver of one company, which had trained him in communication with clients and hospitality.

If public service providers also receive appropriate training, or at least have a minimum requirement on hospitality, the gap between public and private sectors will diminish. I believe that customers deserve to receive professional and hospitable services, regardless of the fees they have to pay for such services.

*To Thuc is a lecturer at James Cook University in Australia.

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