Public Sector: Treating citizens as customers

Ian Campbell Sunday Business Post, Oct 28th, 2012.

A defining characteristic of the public sector, at home and abroad, is the way it has begun to treat citizens as customers. This brings all the responsibilities that such a relationship entails in terms of quality of service. At the same time, public expenditure is under increased scrutiny, forcing governments to find more efficient ways to facilitate citizen interaction.

It is no surprise that these changes have encouraged CRM vendors who believe they can help government agencies get benefits from the software that are already being reaped by the private sector. Over a decade ago it would have been a hard sell because CRM was notoriously difficult to deploy. All that changed with a new wave of vendors.

Among them is SugarCRM, which Clint Oram, co-founder and chief technology officer, claims has a particularly compelling pitch for the public sector. Sugar software is based on open source and uses open standards that strike a chord with organisations looking to avoid the costs associated with more proprietary solutions.

“We can integrate with best-of-breed solutions in a way that was impossible a decade ago,” said Oram. “Today, using web services to connect systems, SugarCRM can span the entire organisation, across marketing, analytics and customer interaction.”

The real selling point is that it’s also affordable.

“You can do things now for a few thousand euro that would have cost you hundreds of thousands in the past,” he said.

Open source was important for the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) when it went shopping for a CRM solution. It was looking to integrate a system into the platform it was building for the government’s controversial household charge.

“They wanted open source to control their own destiny; they wanted to make sure that whatever they deployed in one council could be shared across others,” said Oram. “The LGMA works across multiple agencies and has to deliver technology that will work in different environments.”

There is another factor that steered the LGMA to Sugar. It definitely wanted an onsite solution, ruling out other operators straightaway.

“We can deliver SugarCRM on-premise or from the cloud – public or private – whatever the customer wants,” Oram said. “We think it’s important to give them that choice.”

With the government’s obligation to protect citizen privacy, it is unsurprising perhaps that almost all of Sugar’s public sector customers opt for on-site delivery. In Ireland, this also includes Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Sea Fisheries Board.

Another aspect of Sugar that separates it from its competitors, according to Oram, is its strategic focus.

“We are 100 per cent focused on CRM and that’s all we do,” he said.

So what do Sugar’s public sector clients get for their money and what can they do now that they couldn’t before? It’s about having a single source of all customer information and multiple channels for communicating with them.

“SugarCRM is set up to track every interaction with citizens, every phone call, every email and every update in the communication,” said Oram. “Agents will have their full history onscreen when people call up, how often they have been in touch and the reasons why. If there’s a payment involved they will be able to track that too. They get a 360-degree view of the citizen.”

Helping secure the deals in Ireland were some British reference sites, particularly some pioneering work with the health service in Scotland. The agencies may be different and the precise nature of the citizen interaction may vary, but they are all looking for the same gains from going with a CRM solution. “There is a desire to deliver better services which is forcing governments to become more consumer-centric in the way they interact with citizens,” said Oram.