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Article Article February 14th, 2018
Technology • Legitimacy • Innovation

France’s discovery channel: how to learn what public service users will not tell you

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To deliver service improvements, decision-makers and frontline workers need a detailed knowledge of the true needs and expectations of users

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@BCG's MindDiscovery involves user group discussions and applies "projective stimulation techniques” to foster creativity

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Open, explorative user research uncovers what truly matters to service users and is a vital stage of public sector reform

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“Customer-centric and community-centric.” Few concepts enjoy such prevalence across the public and private sectors - in France as elsewhere.

Some may view them as noble intentions, others just as fads or slogans, but we see community-centricity in particular as a powerful lever for performance and impact. Properly handled, it not only ensures that strategies are designed to create value for end-users but also helps align organisations and foster employees' engagement. For this to happen, though, the decision-makers and those on the frontline need to share a detailed knowledge of the true needs and expectations of users.

Unfortunately, such sharing of knowledge seldom takes place, and this is especially so in government. The quantitative studies and barometers presented to public sector managers are filled with averages and figures that fail to reflect the real-life experience and deeper expectations of service users. And although frontline staff are in direct contact with the public, a patient or community might not always dare to express their frustrations or feelings to a judge, a social worker, or a tax official.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are existing techniques that can reveal and explain what truly matters to communities.

Open exploration

Innovative qualitative research techniques are already popular in the private sector, and they have a particular relevance for government. MindDiscovery, for example, is based on user group discussions, and it applies "projective stimulation techniques” in order to foster creativity. At The Boston Consulting Group, we have been able to apply it to various public health studies in France, in helping jobseekers in Germany, and more recently in conducting research for the Montaigne Institute's report, Justice: faites entrer le numerique .[1]

The MindDiscovery sessions are conducted outside the usual locations, without input from professionals and with no direct interaction with the services themselves. Conversations "between users" enable them to reveal their genuine feelings, perspectives and frames of reference, all expressed in the vocabulary they use to discuss and evaluate their own experiences.

MindDiscovery's projective stimulation techniques include using objects, images, drawings and storytelling to help users explore vague or subconscious emotions and aspirations. For example, one participant chose a photograph to represent his experience in court with his lawyer, and explained: "They sit us on a bench, and have a joke with their colleagues. We're like a little dog they take for a walk.” This expressed his feeling that his lawyer had treated him with a serious lack of consideration. Emotions inform experiences - they explain users' satisfactions and frustrations, and so they must be understood and taken into account.

The concrete experiences that users refer to, whether they are unacceptable dysfunctions or inspiring examples of good practice, are also powerful sources of inspiration for action and innovation. Techniques like MindDiscovery open up new opportunities for exploration, and they begin with users expressing themselves about their own experiences. There are no predefined topics, and this allows users to explore new dimensions in ways that would not have been considered by the professionals, who are often constrained by their own predefined mental models and hypotheses.

Our research with jobseekers in Germany, for example, revealed that the characteristics most often taken into account by employment agencies - such as age, education, profession, and duration of unemployment - were less significant than the unemployed person's attitude and mental state. These were the crucial elements that agencies needed to capture in order to design the most efficient support plan, but they would normally have been ignored.

This qualitative research reveals what is most relevant to users. It must then be assessed and validated in quantitative studies, which are themselves designed on the basis of the results of the qualitative studies. This relevance is important, but it is not the only benefit of such research.

Action stations

“We did more with these sessions than with years of satisfaction studies.” This comment was made by a head surgeon when reacting to the results of MindDiscovery research about patients' hospital experiences. He noted the many ideas for concrete improvements produced by the research, but also the desire to take action, which was shared by managers and caregivers alike. And he contrasted it with the lack of decisions and actions following the regular reviews of the hospital's large-scale user satisfaction barometer.

This eagerness to act, something which was shared by all the participants, is another essential outcome of these approaches. In complex organisations, with their many different directions and internal conflicts, the priorities given to operational staff by their managers are often contradictory. The rationale or ultimate goal for these priorities can also be unclear or unknown. If the most senior decision-makers take part in this type of explorative research - undertaken to identify the true expectations of service users - a new dynamic emerges.

"It's there behind the window that you ignite change," a marketing manager told us, emphasising the importance of the leaders' presence in the observation rooms of MindDiscovery sessions. This participation allows decision-makers to hear, feel, and experience for themselves what the users are saying. It also enables them to observe - together with their peers and their own teams - the open and sincere nature of the research, which lends a powerful credibility to its results. When the time comes to communicate strategies and priorities to their teams, the leaders' discourse is transformed. They are able to explain how these priorities relate to users' actual expectations, and to illustrate them with concrete, real-life examples of users' stories that they have come to know intimately themselves.

Whether driven by economic and budgetary constraints or by the digital revolution, many governments and other administrations now have to rethink their service delivery and public policies. For these transformations to create genuine value for users, to align organisations, and to engage teams in their effective implementation, we are proposing a step that is critical to their success. They should apply open, explorative user research to uncover what truly matters to people - with users working alongside leaders in this process of joint discovery.

[1] This report is currently only available in French. The title plays on the phrase used for summoning the defendant into court in a criminal trial: “Faîtes entrer l'accusé”. An English equivalent might therefore be: “Bring in the digital”.



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Written by:

Agnes Audier Partner and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group, Paris
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