Births, deaths and everything in between: designing services around peoples’ lives

By on 24/02/2021 | Updated on 26/02/2021
‘Must tell grandma and grandpa – plus the council, the benefits people, the tax office…’ Building services around life events can have huge benefits for citizens at key moments. Credit: RitaE/Pixabay

At key moments in life, people have enough to be doing without interacting with multiple public services. So governments around the world are connecting systems – making life easier for citizens, while producing big cost savings. Adam Green listens in at a GGF webinar on the topic

Lauri Haav is a proud Estonian. His son, however, has an English name: Marcus. Haav had meant to register his new baby’s name with the Estonian spelling of Markus, but – sleep-deprived, rushing between public agencies to notify them of the birth – he made a mistake on one of the forms. 

Lauri Haav, Managing Director at e-Residency, Estonia

Haav’s error illustrates one of the reasons why governments around the world have been working to wrap ‘life event’ services around citizens, rather than expecting people to interact separately with a host of public bodies. During key life events – such as births, bereavements, unemployment or retirement – people are often stressed, tired and distracted. And in many countries, at these moments they’re expected to navigate a complex landscape of different providers, each of them focused narrowly on their own requirements and responsibilities.

In an ideal world, details would be collected just once and then disseminated seamlessly to all agencies that need them. Providing single interfaces to handle particular life events can make services more convenient for users, reduce errors and ensure that relevant agencies aren’t forgotten, while cutting administrative costs and creating opportunities for automation inside government. But integrating these services requires a huge amount of cross-government coordination, plus the right systems and permissions to safely share data.

Starting with the user

Haav, now managing director of Estonia’s e-Residency programme, was part of the panel at a recent Global Government forum webinar held to discuss how governments can integrate access to different services. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, short of cash for physical infrastructure, Estonia focused on online services – creating one of the most advanced digital government offerings in the world. Yet two years ago, the government decided to rebuild its online services – this time from the citizen’s perspective, rather than according to divisions of responsibilities between government bodies.

Alex Coomer, Lead Product Manager at DWP Digital, Department for Work and Pensions, United Kingdom

It considered 200 different services, Haav explained, eventually beginning work on 15 – of which five have so far been completely overhauled. Prioritisation is key, he added: other governments might, for example, identify the reporting duplications which cause the most pain to citizens, occur most often and, crucially, can be tackled effectively by streamlining service access points.

The UK was an early mover in this field, launching ‘Tell Us Once’ pathfinders to cover births and deaths in 2008. Alex Coomer, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Tell Us Once lead product manager, explained that citizens can use the system to inform, for example, the departments handling tax, benefits, driving licenses and passports of a relative’s death. Nearly 460,000 deaths were reported via the service in 2020, with each notification passed on to an average of more than six agencies – saving bereaved people a lot of work at a very difficult time.

In New Zealand, the country’s SmartStart service for parents expecting a child goes further – not only reducing reporting requirements, but also allowing the government to proactively offer services to parents. It can, for example, alert parents of financial benefits to which they may be entitled.

Including everyone

Paul Dommel, Global Director for Tax, Health, and Social Programs, IBM Global Government Industry Team

While such services are based on digital links across government, the panellists were clear that the single interaction with citizens can also be conducted on the telephone, by post or in person. “Whilst it’s okay for the tech giants of the world to [only] target people who want to use the internet,” said Coomer, “as government we have to make sure that we can accommodate all of the users that require a government service.” Providing a range of channels ensures that everyone can access the service, while retaining most of the benefits around reducing transaction costs across the public sector.

Here, local context is vital in designing effective services. Paul Dommel, global director for tax, health and social programs at IBM’s Global Government Industry Team, picked out three examples of different services that IBM has worked on around the world. In the first, in New York, information was submitted exclusively online. In the second, the government required citizens to make a report in person. And in India, government officials travelled to meet individual citizens and gather information.

In Dommel’s view, the need to maintain offline services shouldn’t be seen as a problem. When governments can direct swathes of users towards digital channels, he noted, resources are freed up to serve those who want or require a human interaction. “If we spend too much time thinking: ‘Oh, we can’t bring along everyone with digital’, we miss the point,” he said, arguing that the need to focus scarce funding and staff on those most in need helps “underpin why we’re moving to a digital world.”

Emmanuel Kgomo, Chief Director in the Department of Public Service and Administration, South Africa

In South Africa, patchy internet coverage and access to devices make face-to-face services particularly important. And Emmanuel Kgomo, chief director of the country’s Department of Public Service and Administration, explained that community development workers are being deployed to every municipality: their job is to make contact with people in isolated communities, and assist them to access services. The government has also focused on creating one-stop shops where people can access multiple services – and Kgomo highlighted a further benefit of “improving the face of service delivery.” Doing so can change perceptions of public sector jobs and support recruitment, he said: “We want to ensure that the image of the public service is improved and [citizens] can see the public service as an employer of choice.”

But if it’s important to offer non-digital channels, demand for them can be minimised by making online services truly accessible. In part, panellists noted, this means ensuring widespread internet access: boosting broadband coverage, and helping those in need to get hold of laptops. It also means designing them with accessibility in mind. As a general rule, Coomer noted, DWP’s digital services are developed using language that an average 12-year-old would understand. Information on pages is kept to a minimum to avoid overwhelming users who are not confident online.

Though again, accessibility requirements vary between countries: Haav pointed out that screen readers, which allow visually impaired people to use websites, work less well with languages such as Estonian than with global languages such as English and Spanish.

Double-edged data

However information is gathered from citizens, though, the next step is to share it across government – and Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer at New York University’s Governance Laboratory, pointed out that many civil servants are wary of sharing data with colleagues in other departments. “I have not met many government officials that got promoted because they share data. It’s actually more the opposite,” Verhulst wryly observed.

Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer, The Governance Laboratory (The GovLab)

The barriers to data-sharing can include legislative and technical obstacles, data security risks, and public concerns over privacy. So participating departments need a strong, shared data infrastructure, and policies in place to ensure that only the minimum required data is requested and the correct permissions are sought. As Coomer pointed out, Tell Us Once can only request information required to deliver the service: “We wouldn’t be able to ask for… driving licence information if we weren’t sending that information to DVLA [the UK’s vehicle licensing agency],” he said. To help overcome officials’ concerns over data-sharing, suggested Dommel, programme managers should seek to quantify and demonstrate a scheme’s benefits in terms of user experience, cost savings and public policy outcomes.

In Estonia, explained Haav, a system called the X-Road allows access to nearly all government data, as well as a significant amount of private data such as banking information. This sounds like a concentration of risk, but the data is dispersed across a number of distributed systems that can communicate with each other. Crucially, all access to data is logged, so citizens can see which agency requested their information and why. If the citizen asks for an audit, the official who accessed the data can be traced. This level of transparency helps build public confidence, encouraging people to permit greater data-sharing in return for more convenient, easily-accessed services.

Even where public trust in governments’ use of data is lower, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for digital services. Over the last year – with many face-to-face channels inaccessible – Tell Us Once has seen a rise in the proportion of online users, helping thousands to cut the administrative burden of handling a loved one’s death. However, the fact that 17% of death notifications were reported in person illustrates that face-to-face services remain an important part of the mix.

For Dommel, the newfound popularity of digital services is unlikely to be reversed after the pandemic: “I think we’ve reached a tipping point because of COVID,” he said. “There’s a realisation that a lot of these digitally-oriented citizen services initiatives are the future.” Integrated, citizen-focused services are likely to form a key part of that future, cutting waste and duplication across government while making life easier for citizens – and, of course, ensuring that everybody gets the name their parents intended.

The webinar ‘In the moment: Redesigning services around citizens’ lives’ was held on 9 February 2021, and supported by IBM. You can watch the whole event via our events page or below.

This article was updated on 26 February 2021 to clarify a participant’s point.

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