Better customer service through better continuity management

Society has an obligation to provide certain services. Reliable central government must ensure the availability of these services in all events and situations.

Last year the National Audit Office of Finland (NAOF) published an audit report on the continuity management of central government operations in the event of disruptions. Continuity management refers to actions by which agencies ensure the continuity of their operations during incidents and business disruptions, e.g. in the event of a power failure. If disruptions of this kind continue for a long time, they can develop into emergency conditions.

Among other things, our audit addressed the customer perspective. Some of the following observations are based on analyses of the survey conducted during the audit. Our assessment of continuity management was limited mainly to two areas: keeping continuity and related plans up to date, and conducting the relevant audits, tests and exercises carefully and systematically.

Effective continuity management is either a choice or a necessity

For an agency, effective continuity management can be a conscious choice or a necessity dictated by the critical nature of operations.

Customer orientation reflects the agency’s attitude, values and operating philosophy. Accordingly, it was found in our audit that the problems caused to customers by disruptions are best addressed in agencies with customer-centric operations. The administrative branch or size of the agency do not have a significant effect on customer orientation. Well-organised continuity management was found to have an  interconnection both with agencies’ focus on the customer perspective and with their efforts to serve customers during all incidents and business disruptions.

However, there are certain large agencies running critical activities and functions. Due to the severe negative impacts that interruptions in these activities and functions would have on the functioning of society, there is practically no other option than effective continuity management of such activities and functions.

Ministries steer, and agencies do their best

The Finnish state has set ambitious goals for the digitalisation from the customer perspective. In future, customers should be provided with easy-to-use and reliable online public services.  Online services should operate without any serious breaks, and response times should not exceed certain limits.

It is particularly important to avoid service breaks in the case of shared services. Disruptions in them may have harmful effects on other agencies and the functioning of society at large.

In central government, continuity management should have a broader perspective that that of an agency or an administrative branch. Ministries are responsible for setting performance targets for agencies. However, ministries are not necessarily closely connected with all operations of each individual agency. Agencies therefore need leeway for organising their continuity management. In our audit, nearly every fourth agency was against the idea of increasing ministerial intervening in countinuity management. Risks should be managed where they occur, where the best expertise exists, and where risks can be responded to in the most cost-effective way.

One way of large-scale promotion of continuity management in central government is the harmonization of products, services, and service environments. The benefits come from, for example, enhanced cooperation, specialisation, and delivery. Harmonization also offers an opportunity to combine resources and have redundancy in them, develop operation assessment, and achieve savings.

It is the ministries’ duty to hold agencies accountable for the achievement of their targets. This accountability includes adequate continuity management, as it guarantees the best possible customer service also in the case of incidents and business disruptions. As the ministries are responsible for the performance of their sector, they can contribute to better continuity of operations by setting targets for customer service response times. Targets can draw the agencies’ attention to finding the best solutions for avoiding service breaks.

Author: Matti Mattila