On September 7th, I was pleased to join our peers at the AWS Public Sector Symposium. This year’s participants, hailing from a broad array of government leaders and outside advisors  represent thousands of skilled individuals in the technology sector. Our collective efforts contribute to the efficient delivery of services to Canadians today and tomorrow. Whether their work helps government develop better insights through data in the cloud, manage finances smoothly and efficiently across departments, or communicate directly to citizens through applications, Canada’s digital ambitions are enabled by our community.

It is an exciting, but also challenging time to be working in the field of public sector technology. We are impressed by the success of our peers, our clients and our partners, and we are inspired by the opportunities for solutions on the horizon supported by technology like AI, blockchain, the metaverse, and quantum computing.

In companies like Accenture and AWS, it’s hard to take a step in any direction without tripping over the next best technology, but it’s the government focused teams like us that have the privilege of partnering with government to bring these technologies online for Canadians. Being excited about technology is one thing, but enabling its use and accessibility for all citizens is another task altogether.

It’s a challenging time, however, for governments that are continually pressured to meet the growing expectations of citizens – tasked to activate the technologies of the future for some of the country’s most important services. This work is crucial and will not slow down. A strong and technologically advanced government is a key differentiator for Canadian companies, investors, and the global community, and is essential to drive economic productivity.  

Understanding the importance of digital citizens services in Canada’s broader economic outlook, I was inspired to share some insights from a global survey conducted by Accenture, focused on both citizens and government service providers.

Despite our excitement, a high percentage of those being served find accessing public services a challenging and sometimes unpleasant process. According to Accenture research, more than half (53%) of respondents said that accessing public services is frustrating, and only 36% viewed government processes and interactions as intuitive.

Part of the challenge arises from government serving a diverse range of people with widely varying needs. Our research showed that 75% of people interact with government services from zero to two times a year. Given such infrequent interaction, it is not surprising that most people do not get familiar with interfaces or processes. Simple and intuitive solutions better enable people to get what they need on their first attempt.

The fact is that most government organizations should be able to deliver first-time customer resolution, and at scale. Widespread but infrequent interactions of citizens with government still add up to an enormous volume of public service transactions each year.

Even as society becomes more digital, and digital services in some instances offer major gains in efficiency, government still needs other options including walk-in, telephone, and postal channels. Many people still favor or need a human touch, whether in person or over the telephone, based on the type of service. Around 40% of respondents said that “in-person” is one of their preferred ways to access information from the government, while over 20% lack high speed internet access at home, underscoring the need to better maintain these more human-centric modes.

Ultimately, people want the following basic elements in their public service experiences:

  1. Simplicity. Governments need to make it easy for users to get the help and outcomes they need, but unfortunately, around one-third of those surveyed do not see government agency processes and interactions as clear or intuitive. It is a feeling shared by public sector employees, as well, who also noted inefficient or inconsistent processes, seeing them as barriers to providing better customer service.

    While reducing unnecessary complexity at times requires reorganization, some quicker and more affordable fixes that can make a tremendous difference include redesigning interactive voice response (IVR) flows, providing targeted employee training, or revising service messaging for selected audiences. An emphasis in government on using everyday language, for example, can make it easier for people to get the help they need.

  2. Humanity. Although serving and protecting people is at the heart of public service, many people feel that their concerns are not treated with sensitivity when they interact with a government agency. In fact, nearly one-third (30%) of respondents felt this way, up from 20% in 2019. Clearly, there is room for improving empathy and related skills. For instance, government can solicit feedback and at times collaborate with those being served in designing and deploying services. In addition to personalized digital solutions, there should also be options to bring a human into the experience if a chat bot, IVR tree, online application or alternative digital tool is not helping. Conversely, agencies that automate repetitive tasks can make employees’ jobs more rewarding and mission oriented.

  3. Security. Many people are concerned about government agencies’ ability to secure their personal information and use it appropriately. Our research found only around half (49%) of survey respondents are confident that agencies are properly using their data. Agencies need leaders to step up as security champions, helping to break down organizational silos, raise standards and drive customer outreach and education on security issues. Data security also demands attention for agency workforce awareness and training. Only 33% of public servants surveyed report that they receive cyber and data security training. Much broader and regular training across public workforces is essential to improve cyber defenses, data security and trust in government on data and privacy issues.

We know people prioritize simplicity, humanity, and security in their interactions with government, and these characteristics can and should help guide customer services. Public perceptions, confidence and organizational outcomes are at stake, and focusing on the essentials, rethinking, and adapting customer services can and should be a central element of government modernization efforts.