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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  • Turning Rhetoric into Reality: What Governments Can Do

    While countries are spread all along the adoption curve, it’s clear from what users say about the importance of, and their satisfaction with, the digital delivery of government services—as well as their expectations for the future—that just about every government can do more to provide a better, more effective digital experience.

    Here is a five-step roadmap that any government can follow to improve digital service delivery.

    Focus on Value

    Given limited resources, governments should concentrate their efforts on addressing the biggest gaps—the services that are most important to constituents and the ones with which they are currently least satisfied. In most countries, this will mean e-health, online services for social security and welfare, online education services and e-learning, and digital self-service for visa and immigration services.

    It is good to set bold targets and ambitious timetables, as countries such as the UK, Denmark, Australia, and Qatar have done. Such goals—so long as they are backed up with action—will focus attention on delivery and send a strong message to both government officials and citizens that change is on the way.

    Adopt Service Design Thinking

    This may be the most important—and for some, the most difficult—step to take, since good service design does not always come easily to the public sector. Designing a seamless and fulfilling end-user experience is not an accident but is rather the result of adopting tools, practices, and techniques from the growing discipline of service design thinking.

    Governments need to put themselves in the shoes of the users of their services. What do people encounter when they go to a government service website on a PC or a mobile device? How easy is it for them to navigate to the information they seek? How much “clutter” do they encounter en route? How many steps does it take to do what they came to do? The answer, of course, is that far too often, the user experience is far too difficult.

    Analysis of existing data on user interactions can yield surprising opportunities for simple changes that make it easier for people to find what they need. For example, by knowing how users got to where they ended up, designers can make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. If content on government websites is never accessed, get rid of it! Listening to users express their frustrations, and simplifying processes wherever possible, will go a long way toward addressing their concerns.

    While IT, legal, and security departments all have roles to play, don’t let them drive their particular concerns over the user experience. The conservative and risk-averse nature of government is not an ally in the digital world.

    Lead Users Online, Keep Users Online

    The agencies that are succeeding in migrating customers online are doing so largely by providing seamless end-to-end capabilities and closing down alternatives by phasing out over-the-counter or over-the-phone services for most users over time.

    Too many agencies allow a user to start a process online but require completion through an offline channel, such as printing and mailing a form. Or they require offline proof of identity in order to access services online. These steps add cost, frustrate users, and undermine confidence in a government’s commitment to online service delivery. Do online retailers ask customers to go to a store to establish a digital account? Do they require mailing a check to complete a purchase?

    The best online experiences are end to end: they start with the one-time establishment of an online identity or account (as with online retailers) and then enable the user to complete his or her business, including identity verification and the submission of any necessary documents or information, through a variety of digital methods. The user never has to leave his or her computer—or smartphone or tablet.

    In France, for example, tax assessments are pre-filled with available data by the government. Some 2 million families choose not to receive any paperwork associated with their tax filing, preferring a completely online experience, and 90 percent of company taxes are paid via online services.

    A commitment to “no wrong door” policies does not mean having to offer every service through every channel. This is costly and unsustainable in the long run. Governments can guide users online as they phase out offline channels over time.

    Demonstrate Senior Leadership and Commitment

    Digital services need a senior-level champion who will make the commitment to moving government services online a top-three priority. Governments signal the importance and the urgency that they place on their digital initiatives by where they place responsibility for the effort.

    The ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, declared earlier this year, “I want every citizen to perform government transactions via mobile phone.” The UK’s digital strategy is overseen by a cabinet-level minister, Francis Maude. Leaders at this level are able not only to set clear strategy, agendas, and policy with aggressive targets and timelines but also to help ensure the essential cooperation and coordination among departments and agencies.

    Equally important, if governments want citizens to change their behavior, they need to change their own. They can hardly expect people to go online and stay online if agencies are still mailing out paper letters and statements. Governments should begin the transition to electronic communications as soon as possible.

    Build the Capabilities and Skills to Execute

    Governments, like private-sector companies, need to develop or acquire digital capabilities. This is especially difficult in the public sector because digital talent is not naturally attracted to public service. What skills a government does have are often fragmented across departments and agencies.

    Delivering digital services is likely to require a strong central team to drive the strategy. The team may benefit from having a senior leader from outside the public sector. It may be necessary (and more cost effective) to contract with outside service providers.

    The UK has had some success by starting the development of its digital strategy with the strong engagement of leaders in the sector. The government created a separate unit to work on the project—Government Digital Service—that is distinct from other ministries and agencies and able to develop its own practices and culture. An advisory board of external experts was brought together to support the new unit. The unit itself has worked to capture the innovative and entrepreneurial culture that is a hallmark of successful digital companies, to the point that, according to the Wall Street Journal, it is now described in some of the UK’s leading technology forums as “the UK’s most innovative start-up.” (See “UK Goes Digital by Default.”)


    The UK government launched a comprehensive digital strategy in November 2012, combining 11 “central principles” and 14 “concrete actions” (later expanded to 16) to build a framework for reengineering government and redesigning digital services. The program is anchored at the cabinet level.

    The strategy is clear-cut: transitioning the UK to a government that is digital by default, which is defined as “digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so whilst those who can’t are not excluded.” The plan is expected to result in savings of £1.7 billion to £1.8 billion a year.

    The program started with the publication of the digital strategy, followed by the targeting of 25 “exemplar” services for end-to-end digital reengineering. These included services related to registration, immigration, justice, and social services, among other areas. The process comprises four design phases for each service: discovery (learn), alpha (prototype), beta (test), and live (achieve outcomes).

    The following are some key attributes of the UK’s strategy:

    • Senior leadership and investment are committed for an extended period of time.

    • There is a concrete vision with clear and aggressive goals, including a target of 80 percent digital service. The strategy commits the government to specific actions. Progress is reported quarterly. The first wave of 25 exemplar services are being moved online, and all large new or redesigned digital transactional services that go live after April 2014 will be digital by default.

    • A specialized Government Digital Service team has the mandate to further the digital-by-default agenda and maintain the central website, gov.UK. A core central team separate from traditional government structures and constraints focuses on driving the overall vision forward.

    The websites of UK government departments have been consolidated into one gov.UK point of access. The next phase is the digital transformation of the exemplar services—1 service has already gone live, 15 are in the beta phase, and another 6 are in the alpha phase. Ministers have started to explore how to open up government transactions so they can be delivered easily by commercial organizations and charities. The government is making sure that no one gets left behind as it goes digital, helping departments think about what they can do to get service users online.

    Digital transformation is a journey that will take planning, time, and continuing adjustment. Governments should keep two issues front of mind. One is the need for strong policies and procedures to protect user privacy and personal data. The second is the need to assist those without ready digital access or the ability to use digital tools. There will always be a significant percentage of people who are disabled, disadvantaged, or regionally isolated. Face-to-face and telephone channels will continue to play a role in providing support to these citizens.

    Governments can give themselves a pat on the back. They have brought a large number of services online, and they have done a good job moving to more digital delivery. They are recognized for their efforts by users. But they cannot rest on their laurels. People are impatient. Having seen the potential, they are eager for more. As users gain sophistication—and as sophisticated users grow in number—expectations will only continue to rise.