When I joined the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) nearly four years ago, I was immediately struck by BIG's supportive regard for its 'customers'; its culture of being on the side of the applicant. It was the biggest single difference from my government experiences of schools policy, which were dominated by challenge: inspecting for faults; imposition of targets; and rigorous failure regimes.
Standards matter at BIG. We want to distribute money to those who will make best use of it, in a manner that builds communities up. I had an immediate sense that our staff regarded customers, by which I mean enquirers, applicants and grantholders, as central to the business and the decisions that were made.
Readers might be cynical; how hard can it be to keep customers happy when you're handing out over £500m each year? It's not as if we struggle to attract custom or customer loyalty. Is 'customer service' really important for an organisation like BIG?
I believe that the answer is yes. Last year, we made over 14,000 new grants; relationships that run from the moment we receive an application to the end of the term of funding - sometimes five years or more. We also continued to help nearly 23,000 existing award holders to manage their funding from us. Providing people with an effective, supportive and non-bureaucratic service means they can concentrate on their work helping the people who need it most - the very core of BIG's mission.
As such a large public funder, we face a range of customer service challenges. Demand for our funding is intense, increasingly so against a backdrop of economic uncertainty. Inevitably, this means we have to let an awful lot of groups and charitable projects down. Applicants are passionate about their projects, so it's important we are honest with them about their chances of funding. It's important too that we help those groups we have to disappoint to learn from the application process - for example, with constructive feedback on their applications - which will stand them in better stead in securing funding in the future, from us or elsewhere.
We also have to ensure that our funding has a broad and intelligent reach. Our processes mustn't simply favour the most organised or the best form fillers but must be accessible to people who lack confidence or experience in applying for funding. Those people too can make a massive difference with our funding and should not be deterred by overcomplexity or lack of support.
It's one thing to sense that your organisation has customers central to its operation. It's another to be able to evidence it and to pinpoint where you can get better still. In recent times, therefore, we have made some key changes. For example, we've built the customer perspective into our corporate performance so that it is one of three priorities that all our plans and individual staff objectives are set against. This commitment applies to work and staff at all levels, from our outreach staff who provide face-to-face advice and guidance to projects, to board members and senior staff - myself included - who regularly visit grantholders to hear first hand their experiences of the funding process.
We've improved the regularity of our customer feedback survey and made the scoring more challenging. This is crucial in helping us to see things from the customer's perspective and in enabling us continually to improve on the points that matter to them, whether that be simplifying the language we use or improving functionality of interactive application forms.
These and other efforts led us to achieving Customer Service Excellence (CSE) accreditation. In September, we were described as an exemplary organisation that puts the customer at the heart of what it does. It's a virtuous circle: 94% of our staff say they are proud of what they do, against a civil service 'norm' of 55%, which translates into a better service for customers.
But we're determined not to be complacent and are always looking at ways to improve the customer experience. We are planning to do away with paper forms so customers can manage their accounts more efficiently online. We know from asking them that most customers will welcome this, but also that some will find it challenging. So, we will be working hard to ensure we support those people to get used to a different way of working.
There are other challenges ahead and, at a time when all publicly funded bodies are required to tighten belts, we are determined to retain our focus on customer service. We know demand for our funding will increase and, when the economic picture could get worse before it gets better, sensitivity to our customers (successful or unsuccessful) will count more than ever. It is imperative that we continue to listen to them, learn from them, support them effectively and efficiently where we can, and explain ourselves clearly where we cannot. After all, it is through them that we realise our mission and ensure that our funding has the greatest positive impact possible on communities and those most in need.
Peter Wanless has been the Big Lottery Fund's chief executive since 2008. Over his civil service career he has occupied key appointments such as director of school performance and reform, director of strategy and communications and principal private secretary to three Cabinet ministers. Peter read international history and politics at Leeds University before joining the civil service.