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Digital Government: Turning the Rhetoric into Reality

June 05, 2014 by Miguel Carrasco and Peter Goss
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  • Governments Are Going DigitalGetting better—but still plenty of room for improvement: that’s the current assessment by everyday users of their governments’ efforts to deliver online services. The public sector has made good progress, but most countries are not moving nearly as quickly as users would like. Many governments have made bold commitments, and a few countries have determined to go “digital by default.” Most are moving more modestly, often overwhelmed by complexity and slowed by bureaucratic skepticism over online delivery as well as by a lack of digital skills. Developing countries lead in the rate of online usage, but they mostly trail developed nations in user satisfaction.

    Many citizens—accustomed to innovation in such sectors as retailing, media, and financial services—wish their governments would get on with it. Of the services that can be accessed online, many only provide information and forms, while users are looking to get help and transact business. People want to do more. Digital interaction is often faster, easier, and more efficient than going to a service center or talking on the phone, but users become frustrated when the services do not perform as expected. They know what good online service providers offer. They have seen a lot of improvement in recent years, and they want their governments to make even better use of digital’s capabilities.

    Many governments are already well on the way to improving digital service delivery, but there is often a gap between rhetoric and reality. There is no shortage of government policies and strategies relating to “digital first,” “e-government,” and “gov2.0,” in addition to digital by default. But governments need more than a strategy. “Going digital” requires leadership at the highest levels, investments in skills and human capital, and cultural and behavioral change. Based on BCG’s work with numerous governments and new research into the usage of, and satisfaction with, government digital services in 12 countries, we see five steps that most governments will want to take:

    1. Focus on value. Put the priority on services with the biggest gaps between their importance to constituents and constituents’ satisfaction with digital delivery. In most countries, this will mean services related to health, education, social welfare, and immigration.

    2. Adopt service design thinking. Governments should walk in users’ shoes. What does someone encounter when he or she goes to a government service website—plain language or bureaucratic legalese? How easy is it for the individual to navigate to the desired information? How many steps does it take to do what he or she came to do? Governments can make services easy to access and use by, for example, requiring users to register once and establish a digital credential, which can be used in the future to access online services across government.

    3. Lead users online, keep users online. Invest in seamless end-to-end capabilities. Most government-service sites need to advance from providing information to enabling users to transact their business in its entirety, without having to resort to printing out forms or visiting service centers.

    4. Demonstrate visible senior-leadership commitment. Governments can signal—to both their own officials and the public—the importance and the urgency that they place on their digital initiatives by where they assign responsibility for the effort.

    5. Build the capabilities and skills to execute. Governments need to develop or acquire the skills and capabilities that will enable them to develop and deliver digital services.

    This report examines the state of government digital services through the lens of Internet users surveyed in Australia, Denmark, France, Indonesia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK, and the U.S. We investigated 37 different government services. (See Exhibit 1.)

    The BCG survey of government digital services involved 12,450 respondents in these 12 countries. Surveys were conducted in late 2013 and early 2014.


    In each country we surveyed, we asked users to rate their usage of and satisfaction with the online delivery of 37 different types of service. We also asked them to rank the importance of online delivery of each service—now and in the future. (The exception was Singapore, where the survey instrument was slightly different; for this reason, Singapore is not included in some of this report’s exhibits and the appendix.) For each type of service, users were asked to rate satisfaction and importance on a seven-point scale: 1 = not satisfied/important; 2 = rather unsatisfied/unimportant; 3 = somewhat unsatisfied/unimportant; 4 = neutral; 5 = rather satisfied/important; 6 = somewhat satisfied/important; and 7 = very satisfied/important.

    In order to assess firm levels of satisfaction and importance, we counted only the “very satisfied/important” and “somewhat satisfied/important” responses when we compiled the results. Users whose opinions were “soft” (rankings of 3, 4, and 5 on the scale) were all considered as “neutral.”

    Almost 95 percent of the respondents to our survey have used at least one online government service in the last two years. An average of 32 percent use online government services more than once a week. Overall, we found relatively high satisfaction levels, especially with basic interactions. Satisfaction falls away and frustrations rise, however, among more digitally experienced younger users, who have higher expectations for the online experience, and among people who try to engage in more sophisticated tasks and transactions. (See “Defining Satisfaction and Importance.”) We also discovered the following:

    • The services with which users are least satisfied are sometimes the ones they consider the most important, including those related to health, immigration, welfare, and justice.

    • Users in developing countries access more services online and access them more frequently. Users in these countries also place greater importance on online service delivery.

    • While there are wide variations among countries, governments generally compare well with the private sector. People like the direction governments are heading in; they want them to do more.

    • Governments face changing patterns of usage and demand. The Millennial generation—18 to 34 year olds, who now outnumber baby boomers—have higher expectations than older people. Millennials are the most frequent but least satisfied users of online services.

    • Governments need to design services to work across different platforms and devices. More users are accessing services on laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Future usage will trend toward more tablets and Internet-enabled TVs.

    We also look at the current state of digital government-service delivery, the areas where user satisfaction falls short, the barriers to wider and better delivery, and what governments can do to encourage more widespread use of digital services.

    Despite making good progress, for most governments, the big challenges still lie ahead. The breadth and depth of demand will increase substantially in the next few years—breadth in terms of both numbers of users and the range of services they wish to access online, and depth in terms of how much they want to do, the devices they want to use, and the increasing sophistication of the interactions in which they seek to engage. This combination will raise the bar for every government in both service design and technological know-how. But the potential payback—money saved, efficiencies achieved, and enhanced competiveness with other nations—is enormous. In research undertaken jointly with the Secure Identity Alliance, BCG has estimated the potential efficiency benefits of e-government programs globally at up to $50 billion a year by 2020. It is worth doing something about it.

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