Making digital government services a priority

Public agencies should focus on consistently delivering people-centered services on demand

Developing better digital government services should be a top priority in the public sector.

Last year, the Texas Department of Public Safety, which regulates vehicles, texted to notify me that my driver’s license was about to expire. A link sent me to a site where I verified my information and could select either my photograph on file or upload a new one. (I chose the latter.) I also had the option of choosing a REAL ID license, which the federal government will soon require to board a flight.

The process took minutes; my new license arrived five days later.

Developing more government services like this should be a high priority for every public agency. As it stands, most compulsory interactions people have with their state governments still require standing in lines or filling out forms—or both. To be more responsive, and therefore more successful, government organizations need better technology and data infrastructure, and a human-centric focus, to more fully anticipate and fulfill their citizens’ needs.

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The bar is set rather high. Most Americans today expect digital services to be as swift and seamless as my license renewal. When they aren’t, they notice. Amid the pandemic, close to half of U.S. respondents said that government agencies’ digital offerings were ineffective, according to a September 2020 survey by EY. An earlier survey by Accenture found that 55% of Americans didn’t use or know about government digital services.

When governments put services online and anticipate their needs, their citizens respond favorably. Six in 10 respondents to the Accenture survey said they were satisfied with such online government services, and 56% wanted to know how they can better use them—just as I felt about the timely text I received about my license renewal.

Here’s how public sector leaders can take important steps toward what I call anticipatory government.

Change the mindset

To better predict citizens’ needs, agencies must improve how they collect, analyze, and securely share data. Doing so also makes them more responsive, efficient, productive, and financially stable.

Consider something as basic as a portal that informs citizens and gives them access to services. After logging on (and receiving a “welcome back” message), they can see programs they’re enrolled in and others that might interest them.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this level of personalization can change citizens’ views of government.

Technology alone does not make government more responsive.

Technology alone does not make government more responsive; agencies can’t simply deploy a new technology or two and declare victory. As Deloitte pointed out in a November 2020 white paper, government must use a combination of advanced digital tools, including machine learning, to manage data quality and integration, workflow management, predictive analytics, and cybersecurity.

The exact recipe will depend on each agency’s mission, but it should follow two principles: prioritizing human-centered design of new services, and making available high-quality citizen data that can be shared by all of an agency’s applications.

Embrace human-centered design

Many public sector agencies still depend on technologies developed before the rise of digital consumer services and apps. They were designed for technologists, not citizens; their primary outputs were spreadsheets and reports. To better address citizen needs, governments need to begin replacing these obsolete systems with human-centric ones that create better citizen experiences.

They can start by practicing human-centered design, a concept popularized in the consumer world by the design firm IDEO. It focuses on developing products, services, and processes that focus first on people’s needs, and what’s most convenient and efficient for them, instead of making the designer’s tools and preferences the first priority.

[Read also: Mastering the art of employee experience design]

While the methodology is only beginning to penetrate government organizations, the potential for change is real.

One branch of the U.S. military recently used a human-centered design approach to replace a manual system for scheduling and recording fitness evaluations. After interviews and meetings with senior officers and other personnel, project leaders developed a mobile app for examiners to schedule exams and record results. Aside from making things easier for examiners, the app also gave officers a more detailed picture of their teams’ readiness.

The entire process took three weeks.

Normalize data

Once agencies commit to putting people, not programs, first, the next step is to improve the quality and usability of data.

Most public agencies have invested in separate systems for human resources, finance, logistics, IT, and other operations. As a result, they don’t integrate very well; data is often redundant and error-ridden, or stored in different formats.

That’s one reason why more agencies are adopting workflow management tools that bridge those siloed systems and normalize data to remove duplicates and fix errors so they can be analyzed and visualized. This requires a common data model, which allows information to be more easily shared across multiple applications and between different agencies.

By giving a unified view of an agency’s information, a common data model allows advanced tools, such as predictive analytics, to better anticipate citizen issues and needs, instead of only reacting to them. A transportation department, for instance, might apply these tools to traffic-monitoring data to predict congestion before it occurs, and then use natural language processing to make them accessible through Alexa or Siri.

Pairing a human-centered design approach with a common data model can help automate manual processes, speed response times, and increase citizen satisfaction. Most important, it can give agencies the ability to anticipate a wide range of future digital services that citizens most likely already want.