Improving public services delivery through digital technology

Based on their experiences with the private sector, citizens, businesses, and other entities now expect a high level of responsiveness and convenience when interacting with public service. For instance, users expect to be able to subscribe and pay for public services from wherever they are; or to access advice and services’ information whenever they most need it. Indeed, the generation just coming up to adulthood (Gen Z), is reported to expect instantaneous, digitally enabled communication in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Offering a good provision of public services, digitally, could reduce the administrative burden on businesses that need to interact with public institutions. Moreover, according to this McKinsey report, “residents who are satisfied with a public service are nine times more likely to trust the government overall than those who are not”.

Having said that, it is also important to recognise some of the challenges that the public service faces, when it comes to the digitalisation of citizen interactions.

The range of users served

The digitalisation of public service may bring convenience, but it also transfers the responsibility for state-related business to the citizens themselves. They need to be able to initiate and maintain contact with the public service, and to take responsibility for maintain their own social benefits. Yet, the ability to do so varies widely among citizens. For instance, in Finland, which is one of the leaders in e-government development in Europe, there is a 10 percentual points difference in access to those services between migrants and the general population.

The challenges start with access to technology itself. For instance, for some citizens the only means of accessing the internet is through their mobile phones (usually not the most recent versions). Indeed, that was one of the barriers to using the NHS Covid-19 tracing app. Others can only do so via mobile phone connections, which puts citizens in rural environments at a disadvantage.

Other reasons that explain the differences in access are:

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The range of needs provided for

Not only do public service providers serve a broad range of users, but they also deliver an extensive range of services. Whereas private organisations can segment the market, and to focus on the specific segments that best suit their business model, public service organisations need to serve all citizens in their area. For instance, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is the smallest one in London, there is a 12-year gap in life expectancy between the most and least affluent wards in the borough, and has the greatest income inequality in London.

Different users are likely to have different needs, which, in turn, results in many different customer journeys. In McKinsey’s reportDigital public services: How to achieve fast transformation at scale”, it is reported that “Private-sector organizations typically manage just a few customer journeys. Governments, by contrast, are responsible for 50 to 100 journeys, which account for thousands of individual services. The ongoing effort to digitize public services in Germany illustrates this point: the government has grouped 5,900 transactions into 575 distinct services from a user perspective, which, in turn, contribute to 55 user journeys.”

Principles for designing digital public services

With the above challenges in mind, for public services to make the most of digital technology in interactions with citizens, it is important to consider the following principles:

If resources are limited, start with the digital front end. Not only do these changes tend to be easier and less expensive than the back end, but also simplifying interactions can boost user satisfaction. One example is the UK’s Gov.UK platform, which brought together 2,000 separate government sites in one single platform, with a similar look. 

Services need to be designed for mobile platforms, and work on mobile operating systems at least 2 versions old.

The interface needs to create an easy user experience, particularly for those interactions with financial or legal implications such as registering to vote. This includes using clear and simple terms, and offering multiple language options, to improve inclusiveness.

Users should be involved in the design, in order to understand their experiences and better serve their needs. An example is the involvement of cancer patients and medical staff in the development of the Rosa chatbot, in Norway, to provide information about hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.

I discussed some of these challenges, and how to address them, in my recent participation in the House of Lords’ Public Services Committee on designing “A public services workforce fit for the future”. Link here, if you want to check my recommendations and those of the other two experts, Professor Catherine Mangan and Dr Aveek Bhattacharya.

I am part of a research team investigating the different needs of residents in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and how that shapes their digital interactions with Borough. If you reside in this area, or if you could put me in touch with residents there, please leave a comment or get in touch. I would really appreciate your help!

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