Towards better public services in 2023 and beyond: lessons from the Human-Centred Public Services Index

By on 03/01/2023 | Updated on 03/01/2023
A human-centred approach can help governments to achieve the paradigm of public services: a service which is efficient to manage – reducing costs – which also provides a high-quality experience for users. Photo by Matthias Zomer via Pexels

Around the world, public services are under threat, as public budgets tighten in the face of financial and geopolitical uncertainty. Yet now, more than ever, governments need to proactively help citizens in times of crisis. That requires services which are ‘human-centric’, and which place people’s needs at the heart of their offering.

So, what is human-centred design and why should governments commit to it? For governments to succeed in delivering human-centric services, they need to invest in the principles of human-centred design (HCD). Simply put, human-centred design involves putting yourself in the shoes of service users. It requires user research – working closely with the people using a service to understand their needs – or even co-design, whereby people are invited into the design process.  

A well-executed, human-centric approach combines user research with a strategic view of how services fit into wider government processes. Ultimately this approach can help governments to achieve the paradigm of public services: a service which is efficient to manage – reducing costs – which also provides a high-quality experience for users.

How human-centric are governments’ public services? A global index

At Oxford Insights, we care strongly about human-centred design. We are also experts in creating international benchmarking tools, such as our AI Readiness Index. Therefore, it seemed natural to turn our benchmarking skills to the topic of human-centred services in our new Human-Centred Public Services Index. Ultimately, we were interested in the extent to which services are easy to use, easy to access, reliable and effectively deliver their promised outcomes.

We measured this through the combination of an international survey – which asked just under 10,000 people worldwide what they thought of public services – existing data from organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, and our own research into the quality of information on each country’s public service webpages. You can read more about our methodology in the Index report.

Results placed three countries firmly ahead of the pack in terms of human-centric service provision: the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Finland. All three countries have made a clear and consistently applied commitment to human-centred design.

In the UAE, for example, the government has committed to a Government Services Excellence Programme, which includes ranking public service providers based on their service experience, through their Global Star Rating System. Elsewhere, in Singapore, the government has committed to human-centric design methods for decades, building in-house service design teams and setting up opportunities for civil servants to learn more about human-centred design through secondment programmes with leading private sector organisations in the field.

Source: Oxford Insights Human-Centred Public Services Index 2022

As is the case with many indices, there was a correlation between success and country GDP. Yet some countries bucked this trend. Rwanda scored higher than a number of its regional neighbours, despite having a lower GDP than most. Here is where political commitment comes into play. According to our regional expert, Hilda Barasa, Rwanda’s success aligns with the central government’s strong vision for excellence in public services, resulting in initiatives such as Irembo, an ambitious initiative to digitise more than 90 public services in a short timeframe.

Lessons for government

So, what are the practical lessons governments can take from the Index? Here are a few:

  • Commit to a vision

Human-centred design requires investment in strategy and multidisciplinary design teams. Yet these costs pay off in the longer term. Human-centred design is efficient in the sense that it prioritises working to understand and meet user needs from the outset, as opposed to having to re-design public services from scratch when they are failing users.

  • Prioritise accessibility and inclusion

The Index found that governments need to create public services which work better for people who self identify as having a disability. These people consistently rated their experience with public services lower than other survey respondents. This was true even in some of the highest ranking countries in the Index.

Truly human-centric services need to work for everyone, so governments should start by testing services with people with accessibility needs or from marginalised populations, to ensure that services are accessible and inclusive before roll out.

  • Chase innovation

As digital innovation transforms service experience in the private sector, users’ expectations of public services rise. We expect to be able to access services online, using websites which are reliable and easy to use. Indeed, having public services which are available online was the second top priority for respondents in the index survey, just behind having services which are easy to use.

To meet a wide range of user needs, public services need to be offered via multiple channels. For a number of governments this will involve increasing the number of services which are offered online.

Public services should be the best in our society – they touch all of our lives, and help us when we need it most. Applying the principles of human-centred design to government will take time and investment, but it is the only way forward if we are to ensure that public services work well for everyone.

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About Richard Stirling and Jasmine Kendall

Richard Stirling, is chief executive officer and co-founder, Oxford Insights. He has been at the intersection of government and technology throughout his career, advising centres of government around the world on a broad range of areas, from tax policy to identity policy, and on how to use data to support innovation and unlock economic growth. A former UK senior civil servant – having held roles in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, the Implementation Unit, and at HM Treasury – Richard led the design and implementation of the UK's open data policy and worked for Francis Maude on efficiency and reform among other major projects. He is also the Open Data Institute's international director. Jasmine Kendall is a senior consultant at Oxford Insights. Since joining the company, she has worked on a range of projects, investigating procurement practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, scoping out a new data governance model for the agri-food sector, and conducting research to support the UK government's provision of services for nationals abroad. She is especially interested in work which connects governments with voices across civil society.

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