Service delivery
June 24, 2015

Putting citizens first: Why is it so hard?

There’s a lot of noise out there about digital government. Yet there’s a gap between the expectations of citizens and the service experience they get from government. Though 87 percent of Canadian households are online and Canada’s Internet users are some of the most engaged in the world, there’s a long way to go before government digital services achieve the take-up and satisfaction levels that we see in the private sector. And this needs to change.

Too often the focus in solving this has been on the technology. But the experience of those that do digital really well – the disruptive upstarts, the companies that have successfully reinvented their business model or services, and even the most digitally-advanced governments such as the self-styled D5 (the U.K., Israel, South Korea, Estonia and New Zealand) – shows that digital success has three primary ingredients: putting user needs first; changing by doing; and, not least, getting the right leadership in place.

It’s these that consistently lead to world-class digital services which users like. It’s these that must become part of the DNA of government.

If that seems disarmingly simple in theory, it’s because it is. In practice, though not complicated, it’s harder to get right.

So what of the first ingredient, putting user needs first?

When Brian Chesky started Airbnb, he couldn’t have foreseen that eight years on it would be valued at a cool $20 billion, having served more than 25 million guests, and with 95 percent of its listings rated at 4.5 to 5 stars. Imagine a similar sized government service like submitting your tax return hitting that level of satisfaction. A stretch?

Well, in three years the U.K. government has achieved exactly that through the award-winning GOV.UK platform, turning the tide on decades of dissatisfaction with government services.

And just as Airbnb has disrupted the travel industry by putting users first, so the U.K. government is seeing user satisfaction for digital services like voter registration race past 95 percent by adopting the very same design principle.

In Canada, too, the latest Citizens First 7 survey shows that citizens expect government digital services to be simpler, clearer and faster than they are today. As Johann Starke, president and CEO of digital agency FCV, points out, “the goal is a frictionless experience. Citizens need to get in, complete the task at hand, and get out again.” Right now, the 19 minute average that it takes to find information or access a service on a government website is a barrier for the 79 percent who expect to access services online in the near future.

Mike Bracken of the U.K.’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is clear on the underlying challenge: “Government around the world is pretty good at thinking about its own needs. Government puts its own needs first – it often puts its political needs followed by the policy needs…[t]he third need then generally becomes the system needs, so the IT or whatever system’s driving it. And then…the user comes a poor fourth.”

How do you change this? Flip it on its head. As those of us who worked on GOV.UK are fond of restating, “start with user needs, not government needs.”

Borrowing from the U.K., the Australian government has decided on “users first” as well. In the U.S., the debacle of Healthcare.gov has led to Mikey Dickerson, the former Google engineer who’s leading the U.S. Digital Service, being given the mandate to do the same.

Though there are many across Canada who are taking steps in this direction, we still need a widespread shift at all levels of government to put user needs first in designing digital services.

It’s not a new concept. Canadian tech darling Hootsuite makes much of being “committed to developing features based on our users’ needs.” As Emi Kolawole of Stanford’s Institute of Design asserts, “it’s not rocket science. You have to intimately understand people’s lives, behaviors and beliefs if you want to create something that they will actually use.”

The design team at Airbnb will tell you that they’ve learned the most by talking to hosts and guests. Their users. And acting on it. It’s worth reminding the naysayers who don’t deal in empathy that Airbnb investors who deal in hard numbers thought that important too.

And this is a robust trend that’s not limited to a few success stories. Data from the UN in an annual e-governance survey of 193 member states that started back in the early 2000s shows that it’s consistently governments which have put users needs first that have done the best in adopting and implementing digital technologies.

So why are we not seeing a more radical adoption of this principle?

Because for large organizations, it’s counter-cultural. They typically treat the design of services as a series of separate decisions or components controlled by different teams, and this creates cracks in the service. The interests of users invariably disappear down those very cracks and we’re on shaky ground from the outset.

While in government I saw this firsthand. Policy decided that a process needed to be more efficient. Operations agreed that it could be digitized, but that it would be too complicated to redesign. IT warned that we were locked-in to an incumbent supplier for the next three years, so it’ll cost. Stasis. Where was the user in all of this?

In fact, user-centred service design can help eliminate the gaps that are endemic to the way large organizations work. Tom Loosemore of the GDS explains: “We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. What we’re doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”

There are many examples of organizations putting citizens first. Take BC Assessment (BCA), the Crown Corp charged with producing annual property assessments for all property owners in British Columbia. When they realized most of their customers didn’t understand the value of their service, they came to us with what was perceived as a marketing challenge.

But as we put the spotlight on customer needs, we discovered that it was the service experience that was at fault. Bringing people together from across BCA to map actual needs against live experience provided clarity on the pain points. And designing together with policy and delivery people in the room provided clarity on how to fix them.

In turn, this informed a transformation program which has seen redesigned services go live, the organization start to open-up, and new partnerships emerging that will lead to a more efficient BCA, happier customers, and stimulate economic opportunities as they collaborate with industry.

BCA’s redesigned service for users to compare property assessments online has seen searches double in less than 12 months to 3.5 million. This month I witnessed firsthand the benefits of putting BCA policy and operations teams in a room with industry to figure out how to open up access to data – crucial first steps to organizing around the user.

In the U.K., the Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) service was one of the first government services to be digitally redesigned to meet user needs. LPAs are used by 300,000 citizens every year to appoint people to manage their affairs should they become unable to do so in the future.

From the outset, the digital service was so successful that the call centre requested a positive feedback button be added as users were calling up to congratulate frontline staff on how much better the service was.

As Matt Asay, vice president of mobile at Adobe, observes, “most governments struggle to function this efficiently. But then, so do most enterprises. The reason is that both tend to put user needs second to organization needs.”

It’s early days, but the good news is that many in government are starting to realize that delivering world-class digital services starts by putting user needs first.

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