5 ways to consumerize digital government

Government services should be as easy to use as Netflix. Why aren’t they?

  • Despite major technology investments, most public agencies fail to deliver on the promise of digital government
  • Data silos remain the biggest obstacle to digitizing citizen services
  • Centralized digital platforms can help jumpstart mobile-friendly, consumer-grade services

Over the past 20 years, state and federal government agencies have spent tens of billions of dollars to digitize their operations. To their credit, they’ve made a lot of progress. Today, Americans can register to vote, file taxes, or apply for government assistance without having to lick a stamp or walk into an office.

Yet we’re still far from building a digital government that works as well as it should. Citizens should be treated like customers of the entire state or federal government, not just of a single program or agency. Government should improve the customer experience by offering more consumer-like experiences, including mobile-friendly options and digital alternatives to paper and forms. It should deploy automation and self-service to streamline citizen interactions and shred the bureaucratic red tape.

We need a digital government that’s as easy to use as Netflix. Here’s a five-step plan to get us there, based on embracing automated workflows and information sharing.

1. Blow up silos

Data silos are the biggest barriers to efficient digital government. Each agency maintains its own separate databases, deploys its own authentication systems, and establishes its own processes for handling citizen information and requests. These systems are rarely interoperable, and data is almost never shared between them. Data silos keep departments disconnected from each other, leading to inefficiency, waste, and fraud.

[Read also: Government CIOs should be brokers, not stewards]

Here’s an example: The federal government offers dozens of loan programs spread across multiple agencies. If you visit Benefits.gov, you can find out which programs you qualify for and then apply. But if you apply for 10 loans, you may need to enter the same information 10 times. There’s no good reason for that.

Worse, communication between state and federal agencies is often broken or incomplete. Because critical information is not being shared, someone who is flagged for suspicious behavior by one agency may get a free pass at another agency. Or they may be able to double-dip by applying for the same benefits at both the state and federal level.

2. Leverage digital platforms

By sharing data and automating workflows across different agencies, government agencies can be more responsive to citizen needs. For example, individuals should be able to take advantage of a single sign-on to create a unified identity across all agencies and services. That, in turn, could give them greater access to services they need but may be unaware of.

If you qualify to receive Medicare, for example, the system should automatically check to see if you’re also eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or unemployment benefits and allow you to apply for those services with nothing more than a click.

By sharing data and automating workflows across different agencies, government agencies can be more responsive to citizen needs.

Likewise, if you’re redlined for fraud at one agency, all other agencies should have access to that information. Eliminating fraud in government entitlement programs alone could save taxpayers more than $100 billion a year.

This is more than just wishful thinking. Early digital workflow initiatives offer a promising vision of what the future could be like.

3. Strengthen the safety net

Like many state agencies, Tennessee’s Department of Human Services has been chronically understaffed and overworked. Tennesseans rely on TDHS for essential services such as food stamps, child care, and drug rehabilitation. But until recently, the agency’s workers were mired in manual workflows and siloed systems.

During peak periods, callers routinely spent two or more hours on hold. It took the department an average of a day and a half just to find the right person to deal with a citizen’s problem, and another three to five days to resolve it.

After TDHS adopted a centralized digital platform for customer service management, it was able to automatically route citizens to the right personnel in fewer than two minutes. Problems are now typically resolved within a day or two. Since then, the state’s Department of Finance and Administration has adopted a similar platform, allowing it to reduce procurement processing time from months to days, streamline asset management, and improve strategic planning.

As more state agencies come on board, we can expect to see even greater efficiencies through data integration and workflow automation.

5. Foil fraudsters

The federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is a classic example of how digital workflows can improve government. PPP offered loans to help small businesses weather the downturn caused by the pandemic. Many small businesses seeking loans encountered huge delays or simply failed to qualify. And because the banks distributing the loans had no easy method for vetting applicants, they often ended up offering loans to larger entities that were already their customers. Fraud and abuse were rampant.

The Small Business Administration is now planning to deploy a more robust technology framework to solve such problems. Likewise, state agencies and organizations that support them have also implemented digital tools to reduce fraud. Idaho became, in 2018, the first state to implement the Interstate Connection Network Relay system (ICON Relay), which allows the state’s Department of Labor to confirm the eligibility of people applying for unemployment benefits.

The National Association of State Workforce Agencies also launched its Integrity Data Hub, a centralized database that allows unemployment insurance agencies in all states to share information about fraudulent claims and improper payments. As of September 30, 2020, the IDH claimed it had prevented $178.6 million in fraudulent payments.

5. Improve election integrity

Voting is a government workflow implemented in hundreds of different ways across tens of thousands of precincts. It’s a case where digital integrations can help bridge the flow of information between state and federal agencies.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, works with state and local officials to protect voter registration records and other systems used to administer elections.

Much more work needs to be done to establish a common framework for implementing election protocols and managing risk. We need benchmarks that allow state and local officials to gauge their success in ensuring free, fair, and transparent elections. As technology plays an increasingly larger role in our electoral process, states need a consistent way to log changes to voting equipment so they know when the machines were last patched, who was responsible for maintaining them, and what was done. These steps are more critical than ever to ensure that all citizens fundamentally trust election outcomes.

Ultimately, an efficient, citizen-centric digital government requires sharing data so people can make more informed decisions. When people understand what the government can do for them, they have a greater incentive to participate in it. And that benefits everyone.