A Bridge to Somewhere, and Fast

Sometimes government service improves. When that happens, we must be thankful.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Transportation has started finding contractors who can replace bridges not in years, but in days. The secret to their speed lies in using enormous prefabricated pieces that get slid into place, rather than building on site. It’s not simple, but it’s effective, and, as the New York Times reported this week, “rapid replacement . . . tends to cost the same as slower approaches, if not less.”

Reconstruction of Interstate I-93 in Boston, MA. Image source: Gill Engineering

“The highway department didn’t use to see the drivers as customers,” Frank DePaola, administrator of the highway division for the department, told the Times. “For a while there, the highway department was so focused on construction and road projects, it’s almost as if the contractors became their customers.”

DePaola’s words would certainly have resonated with Peter Drucker. The deceptively simple question “Who is our customer?” was central to Drucker’s writings and consulting. And Drucker would undoubtedly have lauded the gains Massachusetts has made, especially given his deep skepticism of the public sector’s ability to get things done.

But what’s less certain is whether Drucker would automatically have agreed with DePaola’s analysis of who the customer is. As simple as the question “Who is our customer?” might be, the answer is often very tricky. “The right answer to ‘Who is the customer?’ is usually that there are several customers,” Drucker noted in ManagementTasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

In the case of Massachusetts’ infrastructure, taxpayers may vote, but they don’t have direct control over the highway department or the contractors fixing the road. “Not ‘who pays’ but ‘who determines the buying decision’ is the ‘customer,’” Drucker wrote in Managing For Results. For instance, areyou the customer when you buy a prescription drug? Or is your doctor the customer? “The drug companies clearly do not agree in their answers to these questions,” Drucker wrote. “Yet a different answer leads to very different measures.”

What do you think: Who is the real “customer” when it comes to government service?