Knowledge Management
January 8, 2013

Helping yourself: Changing the channel on public sector services

Governments are increasingly urging – and even requiring – citizens to use self-service technologies to access information and services. The Research Committee of the Public Sector Service Delivery Council and the Public Sector Chief Information Officers Council have responded to this development by preparing a report entitled Anywhere, Anytime, Any Device: Innovations in Public Sector Self-Service Delivery.

Self-service channels
Public sector self-service delivery is the process by which citizens access government services without direct assistance from or direct dealings with government personnel. The main self-service technologies, often described as channels, are the Internet, mobile devices, electronic kiosks and Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

A 2012 Accenture seven-country survey found that citizens prefer the in-person and telephone channels for resolving issues; the Internet and email for making inquiries or submitting forms; and the Internet for receiving notifications and making payments. Especially for the latter two sets of purposes, considerations of cost savings and improved service are driving public organizations to move citizens, clients and customers to the online channel from the traditional in-person and telephone ones. Governments can provide online service much less expensively than telephone service, and the telephone channel is much less expensive than in-person service.

Both the 2012 Citizens First 6 and the 2012 PwC Citizen Compass surveys found that Canadians increasingly want to access government services through self-service channels while being assured of continued access to the traditional channels. Also in 2012, the U.K. government adopted a “digital by default” strategy to encourage the use of self-service channels, and the U.S. government adopted a Digital Government strategy to encourage agencies “to deliver information in new ways that fully utilize the power and potential of mobile and web-based technologies.”  

Self-service innovations involving the Internet channel include improved websites, paper reduction and the increased use of virtual service agents (often described as chatbots). British Columbia’s successful WelcomeBC website contains, among other services, a Newcomers’ Guide to Resources and Services as well as 43 occupational guides to assist newcomers seeking employment. Denmark is moving to a paperless system by replacing the surface mail channel with a digital mailbox for each citizen that will be used for all written communications between the government and citizens. Service Canada is considering the use of the virtual agent approach to reduce the burden on staff in its busiest service centres.

Rapid expansion in the use of mobile technologies, especially smart phones and tablets, is the main way for citizens to access government services “anywhere, anytime and by any device.” Most public organizations are at an early stage in providing such access, but some are using “responsive web design,” the creation of a single website that provides access through both desktop browsers and mobile devices. The State of Texas’ website, for example, automatically adjusts its content to the appropriate screen size when it is accessed by a smart phone.  

An increasingly popular use of mobile devices in the public sector is enabling employees in the field to have remote access to their organization’s Intranet and field data through hand-held devices. The City of Nanaimo, B.C., has an application that permits staff in the field to search inspection details on a property, capture data, automatically update back-end data bases, report findings and print reports.

An emerging issue is the extent to which public sector employees should be permitted to connect their personal smart phones to their organization’s ICT system. And the use of mobile devices for payments that is blossoming in the private sector is beginning to make inroads in the public sector. For example, the U.K. Post Office has announced the installation of contactless terminals in all of its branches to permit payment by NFC-enabled phones or contactless cards. Singapore is piloting a project in which bus customers are required to tap their cards on entering and leaving the bus to enable the provision of real-time information on how crowded each bus route is.

The use of electronic kiosks in the public sector declined with the advent and growth of the Internet. However, there are signs of a possible resurgence in their use by public organizations arising from the widespread use of kiosks in the private sector and their improved capabilities. Vancouver’s International airport piloted a kiosk project called Automated Border Clearance that is moving to operational status and being extended to other airports. It permits arriving Canadians to use kiosks to move quickly through passport control.

Technological advances are enabling the more effective and efficient use of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and the emergence of Interactive Voice and Video Response (IVVR) that allows users to manipulate the video content on their own. ServiceOntario is redesigning the IVR applications in its contact centre channel to provide more self-service opportunities by automating information provisioning and transactions. The New York State Department of Health uses IVR to permit residents to conduct background checks on healthcare providers.

Self-service and public management
Such advances in self-service delivery will have a pervasive influence on the management of public organizations. Consider four examples.  

The dramatic expansion in the use of mobile devices for accessing government information and services has increased public concern about the effectiveness of identity management systems. To move citizens to self-service channels, governments must ensure the security and privacy of digital communications. Countries like Portugal and Estonia have successfully implemented the secure use of national identity cards, and British Columbia is replacing its health CareCard with a more secure B.C. Services card.

A central challenge in multi-channel management is to improve service and reduce costs by migrating citizens to the digital channels while at the same time ensuring equitable access to the traditional channels for those who are unable or unwilling to serve themselves. An especially noteworthy initiative is the City of Hamilton’s migration of citizens to self-service channels for inquiries on waste management so as to reduce costs by reducing avoidable contact. ServiceOntario provides money back service guarantees to encourage customers to use the online channel to access several government services.

The availability of digital devices is promoting digital inclusion by narrowing some of the much-maligned digital divides. The City of Toronto has found that a large percentage of social assistance recipients prefer to use the online channel to apply for benefits. Canadian courts have required that the federal government make its websites accessible to blind and partially sighted persons.

Governments are increasingly bundling services according to such life events as birth or bereavement. Providing easy access to these bundles through self-service channels encourages channel migration. Service Canada and ServiceOntario have collaborated in an inter-jurisdictional arrangement that enables parents of a newborn to register the baby’s birth and obtain a provincial birth certificate, a federal Social Insurance number and a Canada Child Benefits application through a single online process.

Financial benefits
There are limited hard data, especially comparative data, on the savings resulting from the use of self-service channels rather than the traditional ones. However, the data that are available show clearly that the online channel is much less expensive than the telephone channel which is in turn much less expensive than in-person service. One calculation shows the cost per transaction as $0.10 for web self-service, $4.00 for telephone, and $6.50 for in-person. Notable initiatives in this sphere include Access Nova Scotia’s Conceptual Cost Model and the City of Toronto’s Channel Assessment Tool.  

Four steps to self-service delivery
The first step involves acquiring knowledge of the kinds of self-service innovations and practices that are available. This requirement can be met in part by reading the report mentioned above, together with its list of selected readings.  

A second step entails the building of a solid foundation of data on each service or program under consideration. Ideally, hard data would be obtained on the clients to be served, the channels through which the service is – or could be – delivered, the clients’ channel preferences, and the transaction costs of the various channels for delivering that service.

A third step is the development of a channel management strategy that makes specific provision for self-service delivery, including channel migration. The strategy would provide for a common database enabling the sharing and use of consistent data across all channels, the protection of privacy and security, the assurance of digital inclusion, and an organizational design and performance measurement system for channel management.  

A fourth step is consideration of the means and measures to implement the channel strategy. To shift users to self-service channels, attention must be given to such activities as marketing initiatives, financial incentives and even the elimination of traditional channels for delivering certain services.

For many public organizations, there is an urgent need to assess their progress in the use of self-service technologies for delivering government services. Those organizations that are already lagging behind need not only to catch up but also to position themselves to deal effectively with next generation developments in technology and public management, including Big Data and the explosion of machine-to-machine communications.

 
Ken Kernaghan is Professor Emeritus with the department of political science at Brock University and the author of, and contributor to, several books, including Digital State at the Leading Edge (kkernaghan@brocku.ca). The report is available from the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service at www.iccs-isac.org under Research.

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