Exchanging data, winning trust: the twin pillars of citizen-centric services

By on 09/05/2019
Ott Vatter, MD of Estonia’s e-Residency programme: “If the citizens do not trust the government with the data, this is already a failed mission”

When departments can exchange data, they can build services around citizens’ needs; but such data-sharing demands public support. Last month, an international panel discussed the potential to deliver citizen-centric services – and the obstacles in their way. Natalie Leal reports

In developing citizen-centric services, said Ott Vatter, “what you first need is the trust of the citizens: that is the most important part.” 

Without public confidence, he argued, civil servants will always struggle to create joined-up, life event-oriented services built around inter-departmental collaboration and data-sharing. “If the citizens do not trust the government with the data, this is already a failed mission,” he commented.

And Vatter knows what he’s talking about: as managing director of the e-Residency scheme in Estonia, he oversees one of the world’s most advanced digital public services. Enabling people around the world to set up and run companies in the Baltic state, the programme has attracted over 50,000 participants since it was launched five years ago.

Share and share alike

Vatter was speaking during the opening session of Putting Citizens First 2019: a one-day Global Government Forum conference, organised in association with Yesser and EY and held in Riyadh at the end of April. The event focused on how civil servants can build services around user needs, rather than the individual goals and interests of government departments; and for him, the ability to share data freely and securely across the public sector is key to this agenda.

For Estonians accessing public services, “there is this principle of giving your data once,” he explained. “If I have already registered for a service, the government knows my address, knows the name of my child and the birth date. Why should I give it to them every time I use a new service? They have this data in their systems; why not share it between the different government organisations?”

In order to facilitate data sharing, “we have a pretty little thing called the X-road,” he continued: the data-sharing platform allows transmission of information between government agencies. But without trust, this technical capability would have been rendered useless by public disquiet and opposition. 

Meeting of minds

Alongside Vatter were four other panel members sharing their expertise: Renaud Seligmann, practice manager for governance global practice at the World Bank; Jessica McEvoy, deputy director of the UK’s Government Digital Service; Mikhail Pryadilnikov, deputy director of the Russian Government’s Analytic Center; and Adel Asiri, VP at Yesser’s e-government Standards and Digital Programme.

This opening session explored how cross-departmental collaboration and digital technologies can put users at the heart of service delivery, with subsequent sessions focusing on programme governance and finance; data and analytics; technologies; and culture and capabilities.

Saudi Arabia’s e-government programme has also been successfully transferring data between government agencies, said Asiri. The government now wants to push the agenda further, building  “what we call a ‘citizen genome’ that will help identify the status of the citizen and provide the right service for him.” 

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to build automated, pro-active services, he suggested; for instance, detecting when someone has a child and issuing a birth certificate without the need for citizens to make an application. The result, said Asiri, would be “something like a LinkedIn for the citizen, introducing AI to do the ‘job matching’ for him.”

Jessica McEvoy, deputy director of the UK’s Government Digital Service

New services for newborns

Such automated services have already been deployed by a handful of countries. “New Zealand have a really great example, where they’ve developed that brilliant app for people who’ve just had a child,” said the UK’s McEvoy. She was referring to SmartStart, a service that “unlocks access to all of these different services that government provides [for the parents of newborns] through this app. It’s benefitting the users; it was hard for them to access those services.”

But such digital services are only possible when departments have accurate, relevant and accessible data. “The baseline is the data,” said Asiri. “If we don’t have the data that can build the profile of each [service user], then we will not be able to provide these kind of services.”

Good data is a priority for the Russian government, commented Pryadilnikov. And he’d like to see data-sharing not just within government, but between the public and private sectors, in the pursuit of streamlined services. “Why not make the whole life cycle complete?” he asked. When someone buys a car, for instance, “both the private provider and the public provider can proactively say: ‘Well, here’s the kind of services we can give you’,” all wrapped up in a single app. 

Adel Asiri, VP at Yesser’s e-government Standards and Digital Programme

Blurring the lines

Some governments are in fact already moving in that direction said the World Bank’s Seligmann. In Dubai, for instance, “there is the development of an app that provides you with the [ownership record] for the vehicle when you purchase it, but also options for insurance.” 

But collaboration, whether between government organisations or involving a fusion of the public and private sector, will require data collection and sharing on a massive scale – and with that comes the risk of data breaches or misuse, eroding the essential trust between citizen and state.

“We can see that with some of the bigger countries, where there have been data breaches by the government and citizens do not trust their government with the data any more,” said Vatter. Digital innovation becomes impossible if citizens do not trust their governments to handle the data responsibly.

Renaud Seligmann, practice manager for governance global practice at the World Bank

Virtuous circles

Yet if governments can ensure their data management is secure, transparent and ethical – avoiding data breaches, and ensuring that citizens are content with how personal information is being used and shared – then citizen-centric services can themselves help build the public trust that is so crucial to their success.

There is a “crisis of trust” around the world, commented Seligmann, and a feeling that governments are serving themselves rather than the people. This is driving a “resurgence of populism around the world,” he noted – and high-quality, accessible services can help to turn this around. Indeed, the need for governments to meet their citizens’ needs has “never been more urgent,” he argued.

“We need to reintroduce the culture of trust,” he concluded, building citizen confidence “on responsiveness and delivery, on transparency, and on being very clear and simple in how you access services and on what basis.”

Global Government Forum will be publishing articles on the other sessions at Putting Citizens First over the coming weeks

About Natalie Leal

Natalie Leal is an NCTJ qualified journalist based in the UK. She holds a BSc and Master's degree in Social Anthropology and writes about society, poverty, politics, welfare reform, innovation and sustainable business. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Positive News, The Brighton Argus, UCAS, Welfare Weekly, Bdaily News and more.

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