Reinvent citizen experience, one workflow at a time

Before they can consumerize the citizen experience, government CIOs need to digitize service workflows

Citizen experience driving public sector digital transformation
  • Many government agencies lack service-delivery capabilities behind slick user interfaces
  • Public sector CIOs can follow a three-phase progression to create ‘citizen service experience’
  • Digitizing just one business process at a time can build momentum and cultural support

Vastly improved customer experience design in the consumer world is starting to influence citizen experience management at government agencies—for everything from basic tasks like paying parking tickets to highly complex services, like applying for emergency paycheck-protection loans during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.

As we all saw when a national health emergency placed huge new demands on the public sector agencies at all levels, we still have a long way to go. There’s still a major disconnect between the quality of service delivery in the two worlds.

It’s easy to find slick-looking government websites that showcase services at federal, state, and local levels. But looks are deceiving: Behind many of those modern user interfaces, after the initially great citizen experience, service often comes to a dead end. Users wrestle with 1990s-style static web pages, PDF files that must be printed and snail-mailed in, or phone numbers to call. User interface alone isn’t the solution.

The challenge for many public agencies is that they can’t get from a 1990s experience to a modern consumer-level experience without digitizing underlying business processes. It’s a multistage journey that many government CIOs need to lead.

The end result is a concept I call “citizen service experience.” It’s far more than just the user-interface experience on the surface. It’s a full service-delivery platform that digitally integrates the process complexity of the back office. I’ve seen it happen, and the spark of that evolution starts with digitizing a single workflow.

Citizen experience upgrade in three stages

Several states around the U.S. have launched “one-stop” portals for business owners in recent years. Most are built on the premise—or promise—that you can start, grow, and manage your business in their state, and do all of that online.

The challenge for many public agencies is that they can’t get from a 1990s experience to a modern consumer-level experience without digitizing underlying business processes.

It’s a terrific vision. But what you often find when you get past the homepage of these sites is little more than a disjointed catalog of business services. You might see functions to search for existing businesses, fill out registration forms, or pay taxes. What’s missing is the connective tissue: There’s no workflow to guide people through each step. You’re on your own to figure out what to do next.
As a former public-sector CIO, I see government-based digital transformation as a three-stage process:

  • Phase 1: Create a catalog of services. As rudimentary as it sounds, many public agencies still haven’t taken this first step—creating one place where citizens can search for all available services. It’s a huge leap forward.
  • Phase 2: Connect those services. Government agencies need features that smooth the citizen experience and can guide them to the right resources that match their needs. A site wizard, for example—a familiar feature of apps and websites— guides users through a step-by-step process: “To receive your new driver’s license, you need to complete steps X, Y, and Z.” That’s another leap forward for most agencies.
  • Phase 3: Fully digitize service offerings. Still on the horizon for most government agencies, this stage requires data to be entered electronically at every step. All signatures are digital, and necessary documents can all be uploaded. A wizard walks users through the process, and they have a single place to return to check on the status of that request, along with all others they’ve made.

I’ve seen how powerful this evolution can be for agencies willing to give it a try. Several years ago, when I was deputy CIO of Howard County, Maryland, what started as a project to improve IT support turned into a longer-term initiative to digitize many different types of workflows. Those, in turn, improved service delivery and experience for both IT and citizens.

The first step—our phase one—was identifying and creating a catalog of IT services that could be mapped and managed on a single platform. Our IT team then moved to phase two, focusing on automating IT workflows for basic operational tasks like system access requests and password resets.

The immediate benefits we saw from completing those two steps gave us the confidence to start automating workflows for more complex functions, like a multiple-party electronic process for contract approvals. After that success, we started digitizing aspects of citizen services by creating a first-ever service portal where residents could get answers and initiate and track service requests. Within a year, the IT team had automated more than a dozen business processes and targeted 200 more for the coming years.

Change-management challenge

There’s a reason we didn’t initially try to redesign citizen services, and instead opted to start with underlying a few operational workflows. By starting with a smaller group of people and automating internal services, we got internal teams comfortable operating in the new system before changing anything citizen-facing. The last thing we wanted was to expose any unfilled service requests to the citizens and have them experience lousy service. You have to get digital processes working internally before you open services up to the public.

The transformational opportunity for many public agencies today is to start managing digital services on a single workflow platform—one that not only presents their catalog of services in a modern, multichannel interface, but that can seamlessly route work across the middle and back offices.

In my view, this is the promise of great government. To get there, the challenge for government CIOs is simple: Stop getting stuck at the citizen experience layer. Jump in and digitize a single workflow. It will give you an education in just how rewarding the process can be.