Digital Government: Turning the Rhetoric into Reality

Digital Government: Turning the Rhetoric into Reality

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Digital Government: Turning the Rhetoric into Reality

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  • Overcoming Barriers to Digital Use

    Users value digital delivery of government services. Some 60 percent say it is important. Almost 55 percent would like more services to be delivered online in the future. These numbers rise in areas that are viewed as especially significant, such as accessing health care (64 percent say it is important; 59 percent want future delivery) or using an employment service (69 percent say it is important; 62 percent want future delivery).

    There are barriers to increasing online use, however. As we have observed elsewhere, many of these have to do with broader issues such as telecom infrastructure, broadband penetration, the cost of access, and education, but a good number of impediments are service-specific and within the purview of governments to address. (See Greasing the Wheels of the Internet Economy, BCG report, January 2014.) Users are quite clear on where they would like to see improvement: ease of use and the protection of personal data and privacy online. (See Exhibit 8.)


    Two-thirds of the respondents to our survey experienced problems while using government online services. More than 60 percent cited issues related to website navigation and design. Almost a third encountered problems with help and support. (See Exhibit 9.)

    Ease of Use Is Not Always So Easy

    Providing easy access and the ability to find and compare options are among the top drivers of digital satisfaction. Users want easy-to-navigate websites, intuitive user interfaces, one-click transactions, and easily accessible online support and service, and they have come to expect such interactions from any online entity with which they interact frequently.

    These are critical issues for governments to address. However complex the actual delivery mechanism, the digital experience should be simple, seamless, and secure from the user’s point of view. Governments should not underestimate the impact of basic improvements in the user experience, such as providing the ability to access all services with a single digital credential, regardless of department or agency, or a website that gets users where they want to go.

    Such experiences are not necessarily difficult to provide, but taking the kind of unified, coordinated approach to design and delivery issues that they require does not come naturally to government bureaucracies. Doing so quickly, especially when problems emerge that straddle departmental dividing lines, is a further challenge. In some cases, providing the capability for end-to-end digital transactions may require a policy change—and the political sponsorship to implement it. Concerns over security, risk, legal issues, and compliance can all conspire to slow things down.


    Many governments have instituted online portals to their services. All seek to connect users with information and services in an efficient manner. Integrated portals will continue to evolve, but governments considering enhancing their own online—and mobile—offerings can learn a lot from these leaders.

    Once users log on to Australia’s, they can seamlessly access content across six different government health and welfare services. The Department of Human Services sought user input in the design process to ensure that myGov would be intuitive and logical for users as well as simple (no more than four navigation steps required), fast (most end-to-end transactions take under five minutes), and responsive. Another portal,, connects citizens to the information and services of some 900 government websites and state and territory resources. It offers extensive information on the government of Australia and its activities.

    Through South Korea’s integrated portal,, citizens can find links to almost all government services and browse websites according to topic or by agency or department at both the national and local-government level. They can also create a customized experience by inputting their age and gender and the services of interest. Downloadable content (including for mobile devices) includes information relating to e-learning and employment. Mobile integration is strong. Many of the linked e-government services have complementary apps for devices running both Android and iOS. QR codes (a form of barcode) are consistently available across websites, allowing a user, for example, to link to a downloadable app relevant to the service in question.

    Singapore’s government portal categorizes content by user group: citizens and residents, nonresidents, and businesses. The portal for citizens and residents,, is a true integrated portal with strong search capabilities across a wide range of interactive transactional services. Online payment is emphasized; the capability is offered for a wide range of services. Transactional services other than payment are more limited, although they do extend to services such as applying for passports and identification cards and registering for overseas travel.

    The U.S. general-service website,, is well regarded. (The UN’s E-Government Survey 2012 found it to be “perhaps the best example of a highly integrated portal.”) The portal arranges content according to user needs rather than government structures (for example, it provides links to “consumer protection” rather than to federal and state law-enforcement and regulatory functions). It starts from a general level of information for those who do not know exactly what they’re looking for and adds prompts to assist user navigation. Content is easily searchable if a user is unable to find what he or she needs by browsing. The site provides clear ways to communicate with the government for technical assistance and on policy issues. While the portal does not host transactional services, it contains links to state and department websites, which do have transactional capabilities.

    The big challenge that these and other governments face is continuing to improve the navigation experience while at the same time bringing online an expanding range of transactional activities.

    There are good models to emulate. French users can access some 30 services with a single user name and password through the website The Australian government last year launched its myGov portal, which offers simplified registration and authentication processes, quick access to a range of services with one user name and password, and easy linking to existing accounts and connections to new services. Some 2 million Australians now have a myGov account. Singapore’s SingPass program provides a single online authentication system through which users can access 270 different services from 58 government agencies using one identifier and password, starting from one point of departure. SingPass has a more than 90 percent utilization rate, with better than 80 percent satisfaction among users. It saves time, provides a high degree of convenience, and addresses a specific consumer need—simplifying interaction with essential government agencies. (See “Evolving Approaches to Integrated National Portals.”)

    The Growing Impact of Mobile

    The rapid rise of mobile usage raises both the complexity and the stakes for governments and their digital strategies.

    Numerous factors are converging to give mobile the capabilities, scale, and reach achieved by few other technological advances. These include devices with computing power and memory that come close to rivaling desktop PCs, increasingly ubiquitous network coverage, smartphone and tablet functionality akin to that of a Swiss Army knife, geolocation capabilities, and vibrant application-development ecosystems with large and growing user bases. Combine these factors with two demographic realities—the maturation of the Millennials, whose primary online experience is mobile, and the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population lives in developing markets, where the Internet experience is mostly mobile—and it’s easy to see that as the next billion consumers come online, it will be through an Internet-enabled smartphone or feature phone.

    Consumers will increasingly want to access government services like they do any others. Just like companies in the private sector, governments need to expand their outreach models beyond PCs and websites. Our survey showed that people are looking to do more on smartphones and tablets. For the last two years, French taxpayers have been able to file their taxes using their smartphones, and 80,000 did so in 2012. More than nine out of ten users express satisfaction with France’s online tax-paying service.

    Even as they determine how to bring more services online and offer greater interactive capabilities, governments also need to think in terms of designing apps, services, and content to work across multiple devices—a PC at work, a laptop on the road, a tablet at home, a smartphone on the move anywhere. The demand for digital design expertise and technological capability, whether developed in-house or contracted for outside, will only continue to increase in the coming years.

    Privacy: The Third Rail?

    Privacy and personal-data protection are key issues for all users but especially for those accessing justice, health care, and community services. This issue goes to the heart of all manner of online activities. For governments, because of their role and the unfortunate history of some, it is perhaps the most fundamental issue that they need to address.

    We have written elsewhere that high-profile data breaches and missteps involving personal data have led to a decline in trust in how governments (as well as other organizations) protect and use information, including personal data. (See “Rethinking Personal Data: Strengthening Trust,” BCG article, May 2012.) Concern about the use of personal information is present everywhere, although the level of apprehension, and of trust, varies widely by region and country. There are multiple aspects to this issue but the most basic is protection and security: How can personal data be protected and secured against intentional and unintentional security breaches and misuse? The U.S. has several times investigated options for online voting, especially for its armed forces stationed abroad, but has not proceeded because of concerns over the security of the process. The Australian Taxation Office plans to use voice-matching technology to identify individuals phoning in, which, in addition to making voice communication more secure, saves up to 45 seconds in both user and staff time per call. Unless users of government services can be assured that strong and appropriate protections are in place, they will be hesitant to hand over the data necessary for service access and delivery online.

    We have also argued that to earn the right to use data, companies must do two things—and the same applies to governments. (See “Why Trust Is More Important Than Ever,” BCG video, August 2013.) First, they must establish clear policies about data use that spell out how and when they will request permission to use data, the steps they will take to oversee its use, and the protocols and metrics that will deter and detect violations. Second, they must be transparent with users. They should be up-front about their policies, describing them in plain, simple, nontechnical language, as well as about the safeguards designed to uncover and report any potential problems.