Can Public Service Access Be as Easy as Online Shopping?

For all levels of government, including municipalities, on-line services are no longer something to be considered for some unspecified future date. The private sector has set a new standard for a streamlined customer experience, and this has translated to much higher expectations for access to public services as well. This speaks to a demand to digitize citizen service request processes, from reporting concerns through to requesting permits or making payments. An increasingly tech-savvy population, continued evolution in technology, and the realities of the pandemic are all contributing to an accelerated need for this to be underway now and to happen quickly.

Benefits of digitizing citizen service requests

The benefits of digitizing public services are numerous. At the core, citizens who are satisfied with how they are served are far more likely to trust in their local governments, and far more likely to remain engaged the process of making their communities better. But there are more tangible benefits as well. For example, unlike brick & mortar service offices, online services make it easy to offer the convenience of 24/7 access from anywhere.  Studies have also shown that time spent by citizens or businesses interacting with public employees can be reduced by 50% or more. And furthermore, automation has the potential to reduce service request handling effort by as much as 60% resulting in a far more productive and satisfied workforce, shorter turnaround times, reduced backlogs, and more time to focus on innovation.

But there are challenges

Government agencies have considerable ground to make up in building a more citizen-centric culture and, in recent years, satisfaction with government agencies has actually declined. According to the 2021 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), satisfaction with local government agencies ranks last in customer satisfaction among the 10 sectors and 47 industries included. Much of this can be attributed to differences in the degree to which services can be transacted online, but also to the fact that the private sector continues to raise the bar on online service expectations quicker than the public sector’s ability to keep up. Adding to this challenge is that the number of customer journeys requiring attention and automation within the public sector is typically greater than is the case for private businesses, while access to internal technical talent to execute is often in shorter supply.

Thoughts on How to be Successful

Given these challenges, digitization of public services can seem daunting, and will surely take time to fully realize. But to be successful, there are some key elements that need to be part of any transformation effort.

Clear Intent

Positive change through digitization will happen more quickly and will be more sustainable if there is clear intent from the outset, common and well-articulated goals, and genuine excitement and confidence on what the transformation team can accomplish together. This needs to start with committed leadership. To be successful however, there needs to be a collective sense of conviction and purpose that is shared by all parties responsible for implementation.

Keep the citizen at the forefront

Efforts to bring government services online must start with and maintain focus on the complete experience a citizen has with a local government, as seen from the citizen’s perspective. Each journey will have a clearly defined beginning and end, spanning a progression of touchpoints, and citizens don’t really know or care about who owns each individual step in the process. From their perspective, these are all part of one journey. And it shouldn’t be assumed that because some individual touchpoints are performing well, the overall citizen experience is meeting the need. By making the citizen’s experience as seamless as possible, operational efficiency and employee satisfaction will naturally follow.

Look for quick wins

Digitization plans of any scale will often fail if there is a sense that everything needs to be done at the outset. It is advisable to build momentum within the team and across stakeholder groups by prioritizing a small number of particularly painful journeys and adopting an agile approach to make these journeys better. This means releasing improvements iteratively in smaller, more manageable sprints, and making refinements continually based on feedback from the field. To quickly demonstrate value, it often makes sense to start with the front-end experience and to gradually introduce backend automation and integration over time. And yes, this may require internal teams to adopt a new way of working.

Manage citizen expectations within each journey

When you make a purchase online, as part of a digitized process it is customary to receive an indication of when your purchase will be shipped. And once shipped you receive additional notification of estimated delivery date along with a tracking number. As long as the communicated expectations are met you are likely to be left with a feeling of being well served independent of the amount of time taken, and will be more likely to use the same channel for future purchases. Public services should be no different. As an example, a citizen request management system should acknowledge receipt of a reported concern, set service level expectations, automate communication to the citizen for key updates, and confirm when the concern is resolved – all of this within a timeline that can reasonably be met. Trust and citizen satisfaction are sure to benefit when such an approach is adopted.

Measure and communicate results

One final thought relates to an imperative to establish KPIs that reflect how well any investment in digitizing services is paying off.  We suggest that a measure of citizen satisfaction always be included, but others such as staff hours spent per citizen service request, percentage of requests received through digital versus other channels, abandon rates, and others will also come into play. These metrics can be used to reinforce strategies that should remain at the forefront of any ongoing digitization efforts, and highlight areas that need further refinement or rework. Of equal importance, this will provide a basis for communicating value and success to stakeholders including city council, CAOs, departmental managers, the transformation team and, of course, the citizens that stand to benefit. This is critical to build momentum towards the ultimate goal of making citizen service requests as seamless as on-line shopping.