Opinion: Digital government needs to be simple and effective

Mark Jennings is the Managing Director of Accenture Health and Public Services in UK and Ireland. A member of the UK & I Executive team, he is based in Newcastle and joined Accenture in 1999. Previously, Mark led Technology Consulting for Health & Public Services Europe.



The growth of “digital government” has been one of the most notable public sector trends in recent years. 

Prior to 2019, local and national government departments across the world were at various stages of progress in this area but sometimes held back by fears of appearing “less than perfect” and the resulting criticism from users and other stakeholders. COVID-19 changed all this, with digital turning into a necessity for essential government services during pandemic conditions. 

In one sense, it served as a showcase of digital public services – they are open to the public 24/7, less time consuming and reduce the administrative burden on government departments – as the disruption of the pandemic made these features more vital than ever. From telehealth to telework, and virtual courts to virtual education, many large-scale digital innovations were rolled out at unprecedented rates. 

The digital infrastructure, digital workforce, and citizen-facing connectivity that enabled these successes will lay the foundation for digital government for years to come. However, to build on these foundations, governments at both local and national levels should consider using this momentum to reframe their customer experience approaches to not only adapt to future change but more importantly provide better outcomes for those they serve.  

In terms of building those better outcomes, perhaps the first task is to gain an understanding of what people want from their digital public services. Recent research points to three key elements – simplicity, humanity, and security.

Rather than the bells and whistles often affiliated with consumer e-commerce sites and the like, users of public services want simplicity; the ability to quickly find the most relevant services, information in clear and simple language and the ability to use multiple channels to complete their transactions – i.e. starting on text and picking up the same transaction later in person with a service representative. 

Instead, citizens are often lost in systems that mimic how government services are aligned like with operational structures and procedures, rather than with “how people want to be served” It is important to get this right as lengthy and confusing processes are among the top complaints in describing public services. Many users report they do not know what materials they need or where to start and it is a feeling often echoed by public sector employees as well; often pointing to inefficient or frequently changing processes as the biggest barriers to providing great service to citizens.

Addressing this requires large-scale transformation, such as redesigning interactive voice response (IVR) flows, providing targeted employee training or revising service messaging for target audiences. Even something as basic as switching to everyday language can make it easier for people to access the service and begin the process of getting help. 

Another key part of any relationship between citizens and digital public services is the human element.  It’s easy to forget that citizens using services are real individuals. Just like the private sector, users of digital services want to feel valued and when they are offered tailored solutions based on their specific user preferences, it demonstrates that an organization cares about them. 

The most natural interactions occur when digital public services can connect with basic human senses. Organisations that adopt this framework can drive higher levels of citizen engagement and satisfaction. For example, while AI cannot replace a human interaction, its ability to converse and exhibit knowledge in a “human-like” way holds great potential. Likewise, the introduction of a wider range of languages to existing digital government services could also deepen relationships and boosts user retention. 

The final point is security. It is not a shock that people’s concerns over the safety of their personal information influences their views and confidence in public service engagement. Closing this confidence gap is key to making people feel more comfortable accessing public services; ensuring people have faith that the government will protect their data.  

Solving this involves making government workers security champions, breaking down organizational silos, prioritizing cultural changes and delivering transparent outreach campaigns to improve public awareness. Data security is also a critically important training issue for the agency workforce, as it can help to prevent future breaches, which can further erode confidence. 

It is also worth remembering that user trust in an organisation determines how much personal information they are willing to share with it. Users are also more open to sharing data for a service they truly value; all of which enhances the quality of the service offering by being able to provide even more personalised services. However, despite widespread recognition that data is required to personalize offerings, many agencies find that limited technical capabilities and disconnected systems, administrators and teams create roadblocks that undermine this personal touch. In particular, the unwillingness of government agency administrators to share information, for personal, legal or time reasons, is often the biggest roadblock of all. 

To ensure they are meeting the needs of their people and overcoming these issues, government agencies must solicit feedback and co-create solutions with communities, employees, and others outside of the organization for feedback into the best ways to deploy service solutions that take these three fundamental requirements into consideration. For those agencies that can get it right, they are one step closer to real-time interactivity – where, communication, marketing, support, and other departments are in sync and the user can feel valued by, and have a stronger sense of confidence in, the government organisation. 

In conclusion, digital transformation of public services will continue to expand. However, to be truly successful with those being served, public-sector organizations should focus on simplicity and effectiveness, rather than looking to emulate their contemporaries in the consumer space. They must also put trust at the heart of all their decision making; ensuring that the human aspect of engagement with public services is not lost.

Nataša Patterson also wrote a piece on Infotec describing how Lambeth Council has given their residents a ‘John Lewis’ digital experience.


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