Bronwyn van der Merwe

How to meet liquid expectations in digital government

In an increasingly digital world, high service standards have been established as the norm by best-in-breed providers, regardless of sector. For governments, this means the digital consumer is now the digital citizen. As government agencies race to adopt digital to improve public service delivery, they must contend with users who now demand the same simple, enjoyable and rewarding experiences they see elsewhere.

For public services to be embraced by citizens (and for digital investments to be realized), government agencies must ask themselves what their services would look like if the likes of say Apple delivered them. Then they must build services to that ideal. To do this, public service leaders need to continuously ask three important questions.

1. Do we really know our users?

Citizens want services organized around them, not around government departments. In a recent Accenture survey, respondents indicated that personalization was the change they most wanted from government services (61%). The movement from one-size-fits-all to a personalized approach begins with knowing end users well enough to understand and respond to their needs – not just at a single point in time but continuously.

This may seem daunting, given a potential user bases in the millions (or even hundreds of millions). Creating “user personas” is an effective step some government departments have borrowed from private companies to accomplish this.

At New Zealand Inland Revenue, user personas were created based on information already held, as well as extensive research. Each has a distinct set of attributes that typify particular users. For example, there is “Fred,” an older, vulnerable and reluctant user of technology and “Nikki,” a confident young woman who is ingenious at maximizing her benefits from services. Effective service design then involves crafting relevant provisions that meets the needs of all the personas rather than just a single, notional user.

In the U.K., the National Health Service’s Friends and Family Test asks patients in every hospital to rate (on a scale of 1 to 5), “How likely are you to recommend our ward or department to friends and family if they needed similar care or treatment?” Respondents are then asked why they gave that score. The aggregate answers are published for each facility and staff. Within a year, this straightforward technique led to greater emphasis on patient experience in 78% of hospital trusts.

2. What did we break today?

Changes in both user demand and expectation levels also call for a new approach to designing, testing and optimizing services. Extensive long-term planning needs to be replaced with prototyping, experiments and iterative improvements that allow problems to be spotted before resources are wasted.

For example, one of the goals of the U.S. Digital Service – a White House Unit that works with government departments to redesign user experiences – is to ship a minimum viable product within at most three months of a project’s initiation. Usability testing is helping inform improvements to software that are meant to come out several times per month.

Another example is the cardboard hospital in Finland. In 2012, before building an extension, Finland’s University Hospital of Tampere worked with researchers from Aalto University to create a 200-square metre “prototyping space” with cardboard walls and props. In a three-day workshop, patients and medical staff gave their views on the experience of different mock-ups of the facility. Researchers’ observations of the interaction informed not only the design of the new wing, but helped streamline treatment pathways and processes – and it saved money.

3. Can users do what they want, when they want?

Seamless user experiences also rely on service continuity between channels and how to blend the physical and digital experience. As users move through any given interaction with government they should always be able to start and stop on any device or in person without going to the back of the queue or having re-enter information.

This is key to Denmark’s highly successful Borger.dk platform, which operates under the principle of “one solution, several devices.” Accessible with a national ID across multiple channels, the service takes users to a personalized page, which uses government data fragments – such as the user’s age, location, and gender – to provide content organized around life events rather than different government departments. Traffic to the site rose by roughly 50% between 2011 and 2013, and the proportion of online service transactions nearly doubled, from 19% to 37% between 2009 and 2012, which led to savings of €3.2m per year.

In Australia, Accenture research found that 57% of the population wants to speak with someone in conjunction with their online services. As this shows, there will always be a need for human contact, particularly in areas such as pensions, child support and social security. The challenge is to find creative ways to blend the digital and human elements of a service into a coherent, relevant and efficient experience.

One private sector example is Amazon Kindle’s Mayday feature. This lets users connect with a human customer support worker directly from their digital devices. On average, a human assistant appears within under 10 seconds, and the feature has been used by about 75% of those with enabled tablets, making it the most popular way to contact customer service. 

Digital government initiatives are essential to cut costs and boost efficiency, while also making for faster, more convenient public services. However, success depends fundamentally on their usability and take-up among citizens. Ultimately, asking the three key questions above will not just help governments improve their services, they will be fundamental to the long terms success digital government transformation – delivering public service for the future.

Bronwyn van der Merwe

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