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Citizens, Are You Being Served?

A People-First Approach to Transforming Government Services
November 21, 2011 by Miguel Carrasco and Julia Fetherston
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These are challenging times for government. On the demand side, citizens’ experiences with innovative private companies, from Apple to Zappos, are raising expectations of how all organizations should be able to perform. Population changes are driving growth in demand for health, education, welfare programs, and a range of other services that existing service models cannot adequately address. Meanwhile, on the supply side, public officials face outdated processes and systems and tight fiscal constraints that seem to give them little leeway for change. It all points to a tougher environment in the years ahead.

Public agencies that deliver payments, services, and information in such areas as social security, revenue collection, passports, visas, licenses, permits, and registrations are often the only real touch point that individuals and businesses have with their government. In fact, for many people, these agencies are the government, and their service experiences can influence public perceptions and confidence in government more generally. In fact, no matter how good a government’s social and economic policies may be, they will only be as effective as the quality and timeliness of their service delivery.

Governments are not ignorant of the growing expectations of citizens or the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Many have long aspired to offer citizens and businesses “customer centric” or “joined up” services that are more accessible, convenient, and effective. But how well are they delivering on this promise?

New online portals have been launched and one-stop shops rolled out to help citizens navigate the myriad programs, services, and payment protocols available. However, the usage and take-up of online services in government remain low compared with in the private sector. Citizens still have to provide the same basic information multiple times, or submit to government agencies copies of documents that the government itself has issued. Meanwhile, long wait times on the phone and in office queues are still the most common complaints. (See “Citizens’ Satisfaction and Preferences Regarding Government Services,” on the next page.)

Worse, the traditional, undifferentiated approach means that citizens who would be happy with fast, convenient online channels are being overserviced through high-cost call centers and walk-in locations. This diverts precious resources away from citizens who have more complex needs and could be getting better support and attention, which would result in better outcomes for them and lower life-cycle costs to serve them. While individual agencies may have become a bit more streamlined and citizen centric, progress at the system level has been minimal.

Citizens expect and deserve better. Many have grown accustomed to researching products and services and conducting transactions online. Barriers to collecting basic personal information and to sharing it with trusted third parties are evaporating, particularly among younger generations. More people expect services to be accessible anytime, anywhere, and they want government to keep up with technologies being deployed in the private sector. Advances in smartphones, tablets, and wireless networks create opportunities for innovation in government services by opening up new digital channels and enabling greater customization and localization on the basis of a citizen’s unique circumstances.