Governments should put the citizen journey first in public services

25 April 2019 10 min. read

Governments across Europe are increasingly embracing digitisation in order to upgrade the quality of public services provided to companies and citizens. Similar to how marketers focus on making customer journeys as effective and enjoyable as they can, governments should in their design of services and products place more value on the citizen journey – argue North Highland consultants Andrew Pennycuick and Craig Spence.

Before we begin, what exactly is a citizen journey?

Any time a citizen interacts with their government they undertake a journey. This is triggered by either the citizen or state needing or wanting something. From a citizen perspective, this could be the need to replace their passport, or a desire to register to vote. Likewise, from a state perspective, they may want to intervene to support a vulnerable child or arrest a criminal. Regardless of the topic, the path taken from an initial need or want being recognised to it being fulfilled is the citizen journey.

Are citizen journeys mostly digitised today?

Increasingly citizen journeys are being designed for the digital world, but it’s a mixed picture and there is still a long way to go. Significant progress has been made in the UK, for example, led by the Government Digital Service (GDS) that has blazed a trail in making services digital by default. The GDS was formed in 2011 to implement a new, cross-government digital strategy. In partnership with individual Departments, GDS have led a huge effort across the UK government to bring public services online through a single website for citizens to interact with the state: GOV.UK. The site hosts 779 digital services (over 1 billion completed transactions per year), with the most popular service being vehicle taxation. This has been mirrored across the globe with some European countries leading the way (e.g. Denmark and Estonia), closely followed by Asia and the Americas.

However, we need to remain grounded and recognise that a huge number of citizen journeys have not been updated for the digital era. These can be placed into two broad categories: those that must remain physical and those that have not yet been digitised. Physical interactions are still common and certainly have their place. This is because a key tenant of citizen journeys is that they must be accessible for all, therefore in some cases there can be no replacement for face-to-face services. Similarly, some services such as surgery in hospitals and driving tests are inherently analogue experiences. The second category is more common and reflects the challenges of digital transformation. Governments provide a huge number of services and making them digital by default is time consuming and expensive.

Governments should put the citizen journey first in public services

What are the challenges in making citizen journeys digital by default?

Digital transformation is challenging. The appetite for making citizen journeys digital by default is unquestionable, but this often comes face-to-face with some considerable challenges. Firstly, there is the combined issue of legacy and volume; governments have a massive array of existing services that were designed in an analogue era. Untangling each service, grappling with legacy systems, designing the new digital service and then delivering it is time consuming and costly.

Secondly, government services are often highly complex, and the stakes are high. Citizen journeys often require authentication to prove a person is who they say they are, the involvement of multiple government departments and interaction with back-end operations, and these are only three of the variables that must be considered. The risk of failure is high, when digitising government services deal with critical issues such as health and social care. So time and care is required when making citizen journeys digital by default.

Third, states need teams with the necessary expertise to achieve digital by default services. Skills such as service design, user research, content and UX design are not traditionally held in government departments. Training staff in these areas and or hiring new talent is expensive and governments must compete with a rampant market for digital professionals.

How are citizens’ needs and wants evolving, and what impact does this have on government service providers?

There is definitely a significant trend towards further digitisation of public services. Citizens are used to doing everything they want to do online, from shopping to dry cleaning, and the private sector has led the way in raising expectations. Many government departments have set ambitions to ‘make it as easy as ordering an Uber’, or ‘one-click like Amazon’. This trend is only going to intensify, and governments need to keep up the pace of their digital transformation.

Digital is nothing new, but it is evolving, and this has also changed what citizens expect. One expectation in particular is worth highlighting: citizens expect to be remembered and to be forgotten. It is infuriating to have to re-enter information that you have already given elsewhere, and citizens now expect governments to be joined up across departments. Equally, the public is waking up to issues of data protection, and the implementation of GDPR within the EU has shifted the balance of personal data power.

For all the focus on digital journeys, there is a risk of forgetting that citizens are hugely diverse, and one such diversification is digital access and skills. Many of the most vulnerable citizens who rely on government services, for example, have little or no access to the internet. Similarly, among elderly generations, in particular, digital skills are poor and as a consequence they struggle, or even refuse, to engage with digital services. It’s vital that government services remain accessible to all, and therefore government service providers cannot focus on digital alone.

Digital journeys with services are increasingly moving online… making citizen journeys digital by default is unquestionable, but this often comes with some considerable challenges.”
– Andrew Pennycuick and Craig Spence, North Highland

What are the benefits to governments of making citizen journeys ‘digital by default’?

The huge investment in digitising services is justified by the significant benefits that can be realised, which largely centre on efficiency. This topic deserves a thought-piece in its own right, but it is a safe assumption that if a service is digitized the number of civil servants required to support it will be reduced.

Often overlooked, however, is the benefit to governments derived from having better data. Digitising services provides much better information about how citizens are interacting with governments; it shows regional discrepancies, generational trends, resource pressure and much more. Ultimately, better data allows governments to make better decisions and achieve better outcomes.

What does the future look like?

Firstly, it will increasingly be dominated by digital journeys with services moved online. For governments, an online service can offer enormous cost savings. For example, the growth of the Babylon app in the UK has led to a shift in healthcare patients visiting doctors’ surgeries to meeting their needs digitally. We can expect to see more and more examples as citizens begin to trust digital services with things that matter most to them.

Secondly, the future of citizen journeys is one designed for the citizen and not the state. Governments are carved up into departments, and each one owns different services provided to citizens. All too often this means citizens having to go to a myriad of different government websites or locations to meet their needs. The future is one of consolidation, with journeys seamlessly crossing departmental boundaries. The ambition is for all citizen-facing services to be housed on one single website. Citizens do not care who owns the service but rather that the experience is frictionless, requiring little effort on their part.

Lastly, when looking at the future of citizen journeys emerging technologies cannot be ignored. It is a certainty that artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technologies will dramatically change how governments provide services and how citizens interact with them. For example, artificial intelligence will allow governments to reduce the onus on their workforce for the provision of services, while at the same time consistently improving the citizen experience as a result of data collection and learning.

Where can we already see innovative citizen journeys?

Everywhere! Here are three examples from some digital leaders.

In the United States, predictive analytics is being used to make better judgement calls when managing sensitive social care cases. Often there is a failure because the state takes no action to protect vulnerable people, and as a result, no citizen journey takes place. The lack of action is often due to a lack of information or a failure of decision-making, and this approach is an innovative solution to that problem. Using the data available to them and algorithms, state agencies can better judge whether there is a need to intervene, ultimately allowing them to better protect vulnerable citizens pre-emptively.

Governments and their citizens interact frequently, creating a complex web of communication. Letters are sent, emails and SMS messages are received, and phone calls made. The Danish government has delivered a radically simple solution: they have created a single place for the state to speak to citizens. The ‘Digital Post’ system delivers pension statements, medical records, tax reminders, customs declarations and much more to a single mailbox.

A final example, further demonstrating the breadth of innovation within government services globally, is the use of the in-home assistant Alexa for public health interventions. Public Health England has introduced a new service offering breastfeeding advice via Alexa, which allows parents to ask for advice. This provides a ‘hands-free’ platform for mothers to access the latest health advice, ultimately leading to healthier outcomes.

The interview with Andrew Pennycuick and Craig Spence is part of a series of interviews with leaders from Cordence Worldwide (North Highland is a member firm) on the digital future of government services.