Let the public take the wheel: why governments must deliver citizen-led digital services 

By on 06/02/2024 | Updated on 06/02/2024
Photo: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

Governments around the world have aspirations to deliver first-class digital services, but legacy technology, financial constraint and resistance to change can stand in the way. At a webinar hosted by SAP and DXC Technology, experts explored how best to embrace innovation and achieve transformation  

Governments worldwide are diligently modernising and enhancing their online public services, catering to the rising expectations of citizens who seek convenient and efficient access to government functions.

At a webinar by SAP and DXC Technology, public and private sector experts from the UK, Iceland, and the OECD, shared their experiences of working to make government digital services fit for the future, exploring strategies for overcoming the associated hurdles, and the benefits that come from successful digitisation.  

The process-centric approach

David Dinsdale, industry value advisor at enterprise software specialist SAP, kickstarted the conversation by describing the UK government’s effort to “digitise everything” between 2000-2004. As he explained, this led to “quite a lot of government-centric thinking, a proliferation of websites, and a lot of PDF forms”.

“We went through a rationalisation phase where there was a review in 2006 led by a gentleman called Sir David Varney, [who] did a review of service transformation.”

Varney called for a recalibration of the plan so that it centred less on government needs and more on the user. His recommendation was to set up or expand three services: “Directgov for citizens, Business Link for businesses, and NHS Choices for health”. Dinsdale was programme director for Business Link between 2006 and 2011.

“It was the beginning of citizen- and business-centric thinking. Then, we moved on with the formation of government digital services, to a more unified, front-end gov.uk.”

Dinsdale said the team behind the public information website did a “phenomenal job of providing a single entry point for services focusing on the user experience”.

A journey that started as a “dash for digital” in the early 2000s became a mission to deliver with a greater focus on users. And what’s happening now is that government is moving towards a “process-centric approach”, Dinsdale said.

When a citizen is asked to sign and submit a form, it can seem to them that that form then “seemingly disappears into a black hole”.         

Governments must therefore make sure that their end-to-end processes are tight, so that people feel confident that what they are being asked to do fits into a chain of logic, he said.

Christchurch and Brussels examples

Giving examples of how this can be achieved, Dinsdale touched on two initiatives delivered by SAP and DXC Technology, recounting first how the firms had helped Christchurch City Council in New Zealand transform its end-to-end processes, making services simpler and more intuitive, and leveraging geospatial capability and predictive service analytics.

Under its intelligent citizen service delivery programme, the council implemented a single digital service combining 15 different lines of business. The functionality allows both staff and citizens to view service progress in real time and includes geospatial data to enable people to report graffiti or a particular incident in a particular location.

David Dinsdale

Dinsdale made the point that these and similar innovations can be hamstrung by policy, and that avoiding putting up future hurdles should be a consideration early in the design process. “There’s a theme here for policy staff, which is how do you define services that can handle technology innovation,” he said. “There are many areas that I’m dealing with in the UK where we’re struggling with digital innovation, not because we can’t innovate, but because laws, for example, might define the way that certain services may have to be delivered.”

In the second example given by Dinsdale – which demonstrates how innovation can achieve better policy outcomes – SAP and DXC were involved in helping to manage Brussels’ low emission zone through GPS tracking.

“Using GPS tracking… motivates people, I think, to align more with the policy initiatives, which is to improve air quality, it makes it more affordable for citizens, which at the moment is really key, it aligns to those policy outcomes, and has the end-to-end automated data collection and billing,” he explained.  

Summarising his key points, Dinsdale said bettering the user experience involved focus on the process – particularly across organisational boundaries; using data to predict service entitlements and citizen behaviour; enabling real-time status updates for citizens and staff, easing traffic to contact centres and significantly reducing costs; and using predictive analytics to identify which citizens need support.

Exploiting technology and increasing speed of innovation using pre-built frameworks and maturity assessment is also key, he said, as is bearing in mind that high quality public services can positively impact the environment.

Concluding his opening comments, he said: “Public services are the foundation of our societies so when we get it right, our people thrive. That, for me, is one of the key exciting things about being involved in public services – we’re helping to support and define our societies.”  

Measuring performance

James Peart, product lead at the UK Cabinet Office, described his team’s mission as “transforming public services so that they achieve better outcomes”. That mission is underpinned by a commitment to getting “at least 50 of the government’s top 75 services up to a great standard” by 2025.

Peart’s team didn’t start out with a clear idea of what the top 75 government services were, nor how to measure their performance. Though he admits it wasn’t easy, they eventually settled – for the purposes of performance measurement – on what he called a “foundational quantity of metrics… one based on usability, one on efficiency, and one around compliance”.

James Peart

This gave them a starting point from which to assess and track services over time. If, for example, a service had a high cost per transaction, this highlighted a potential efficiency issue – perhaps the service was burdened with “too much paper” or had become overly complex. Whatever the problem, the foundational metrics allowed Peart and his team to “delve into each service” for more nuanced information.

Peart was keen to warn that creating a baseline for performance measurement doesn’t always capture the true quality of a service. For this reason, quarterly reviews are conducted, with the performance status of the service in question updated accordingly.

Effectively monitoring services also involves advising departments on how to interpret their service performance data to inform action: if a service’s usability is stuck at 60%, what should they do about it?

“We drop in to offer specialist advice and help them actually solve a particular problem… delving into it with that outside eye and with that extra specialism,” Peart explained.

Solving service problems often requires officials to zero-in on detail and to think innovatively, and use of generative AI or automation might sometimes be the answer.

These aren’t just “buzzwords”, Peart said. “We’re actually trying to apply [innovations] in a real service, live, where people use it.”

Managing expectations

Vigdís Jóhannsdóttir, chief marketing officer of Digital Iceland, listed three pillars her team currently focus on to improve public services. One of those is saving time – which she called “that most important thing [citizens and agencies] own” – and how this relates to services around significant life events, such as learning to drive, getting married, or planning a family.

“We prioritise our work through life events,” Jóhannsdóttir said, before explaining how this connects to the second pillar: “building trust through our projects”.

“We work on being reliable and open. We are the drivers of change. What we create is not our private property, or the property of Digital Iceland, but is owned by all in Iceland: all agencies, all municipalities, all individuals.”

The third pillar centres on managing citizens’ expectations. Many services in Iceland are now fully digitised, but some still need bringing up to par. As such, the government is transparent about the limits of lagging services, and about what it is doing to make improvements. Jóhannsdóttir said that managing expectations requires “constant communication” from government, and drew attention to the importance of the user in the decision-making process, echoing Dinsdale’s earlier point.

Vigdís Jóhannsdóttir

She also highlighted what she called Iceland’s “secret recipe for success” when it comes to providing digital public services. “We have the knowledge… consensus across all political parties [and on] sufficient funds to be invested in digital services… and we have the mandate [for] decision making,” she said.

These ingredients remove the need for superfluous process, and so have sped up the rate at which public services in Iceland have been digitalised in recent years.

“We don’t have a lot of time and we don’t want to stand in line… so just by simplifying things we hope to contribute to a better life [for citizens] in Iceland.”  

Letting the public drive

A ‘recipe for success’ is something every government wants, though none can claim to have developed a universally applicable formula. There are, however, common themes including process reform, the importance of collaboration across departments, and the provision of experiences that support rather than alienate the user.

Dinsdale underscored this last point when he drew a straight line connecting digital service functionality to user-centrality and the fulfilment of societies at large.

“Public services are the foundation of our societies. When we get it right, our people thrive, and that, for me, is one of the key exciting things about being involved in public services: we’re helping to support and define our societies,” he said.

Rather than ask citizens to be their passengers, governments must build digital public services that hand them the wheel instead – only then will the power of digital technology be unlocked across the public sector.

You can watch the full Harnessing the digital potential of government services webinar on our dedicated event page. The webinar, hosted by SAP and DXC Technology with support from Global Government Forum, was held on 12 December 2023.

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One Comment

  1. Alan says:

    No government should try and get involved in every aspect of an individual’s life. Decisions should be left to individuals. Let people decide for themselves what is and what is not misinformation. We don’t need government censorship. All points of view should be available for viewing. Censorship just lets the people currently in power block out ideas that can affect their power status. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. No human beings are perfect or correct all the time including people in positions of power. New ideas help people learn from their mistakes, and leads to progress not government restraints to force only one way of thinking.

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