• Opinion
  • September 17, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

What we learned from a roadtrip in digital excellence

Opinion: Citizens expect services that reflect their needs — not the confines of government

This opinion article was written by Dr Alan Thorogood, Senior Visiting Fellow at UNSW and formerly Head of Strategy for Australia’s DTA, and Dr Kate Harrington, Head of Strategic Digital Initiatives in the NSW Department of Customer Service. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed. 


Janet died in May 2018.

Her family had to deal with her local council, an undertaker, banks, private pension provider, solicitor, NSW Health, the Supreme Court, Births Deaths and Marriages, as well as federal Medicare and Centrelink agencies.

Now re-imagine how Janet’s family could experience this as a joined-up and streamlined service.

Families shouldn’t have to deal with repeated and unnecessary bureaucracy. National, state and local governments across Australia are using digital to re-imagine service delivery to make services simple, clear and fast.

A roadtrip in digital excellence

Janet is not just a fictional persona. She is a real person, and a close relative of one of the authors. But her story and the barriers her family faced is not uncommon in Australia, where government agencies find it difficult to design services with users in mind.

Geography, administrative structures and boundaries, mistrust, legislation, funding and politics all present challenges. Our experiences working with Australia’s digital collaboration encouraged us to learn from others. As part of an ongoing review of digital best practice, we asked public servants and academics in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the UK and the USA for their point of view. We also talked to the Danish Design Council, Gartner and IBM.

citizens expect to receive services that reflect their needs, and not the confines of government

From everyone we talked to, we heard a strong need to collaborate and many obstacles to success.

Although some factors are universal, others are context-dependent. There were variations related to the unique structures and histories of each country and region. For example, the UK is more centralised than Germany or Belgium. This enables UK local government to use more central assets. In Germany, on the other hand, sharing data can be difficult. When a German agency captures citizen data, it can be difficult to re-use the data for other purposes. Prohibiting this data re-use hinders joined-up service delivery.

Nonetheless, citizens expect to receive services that reflect their needs, and not the confines of government.

A life event approach to digital

Luckily, there is a way forward by designing new digital services around “life events” — the pivotal moments in our life, such as starting school, moving house, or death and funeral. A life event approach puts citizens at the centre of new digital services. Citizens expect life event services that join up agencies seamlessly, which means that collaboration becomes necessary.

In one of those rare cases in government, citizens want digital life event services that are better and less expensive than when analogue or stand-alone. Collaboration allows government to re-use expensive platforms used for payments, national identity and tell-us-once, saving government money in both building and running these systems.

Using federated solutions allows each service provider to have the flexibility to fit their needs and share the costs. Citizens also benefit, receiving services in a consistent way and avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy.

So why haven’t governments delivered digital services for people’s holistic needs before, and what’s keeping them from doing it now? We have identified common factors in our engagements with other governments. There are three emerging themes:

  • Exogenous or external factors that a team could do little to improve such as untested relationships with other agencies;
  • Relationship factors that agencies could work together to resolve such as creating common communities of practice or having a single management reporting point;
  • Endogenous factors that an agency could undertake, such as changing funding models for digital services or prioritising a digital technology refresh.

Here we unpack two of these factors  trust and funding that our colleagues mention.

The challenge of trust

Collaborating agencies already in a trusting relationship is valuable. Public servants in rapidly evolving digital services emphasise this point. Trusted partners help resolve uncertainty by sharing information and points of view.

However, information sharing can be difficult if there isn’t a foundation of trust between the different organisations. The result is that collaborators may be cautious about releasing information. In choosing to deliver a digital service, managers should think about the collaborators and what safeguards need to be put in place.

The world of government is changing and particularly so in the digital space. Technology continues to develop and is being adopted at pace. Social media, mobile apps, analytics, cloud computing and artificial intelligence are disrupting traditional engagement and delivery channels.

Government agencies keep pace by adopting agile approaches. Agile emphases iteration — learning by doing. In an agile fashion, the public sector is delivering new services, learning from that delivery, planning for enhancements and then repeating the process.

Investing in change

Using capital funding for this approach is challenging. Capital funding — compared with business as usual operating funds — typically needs 18 months or more to build a business case.

Treasuries expect confidence that these funds will deliver the scope and be on time. One rule of thumb is that collecting evidence and presenting the argument costs 10% of the total capital funding. Instead, digital services need smaller funds on an ad hoc basis to develop, and on an annual basis to fit their operating model for delivery.

To achieve digital service delivery around citizen life events, agencies must:

  • Collaborate to join-up services. Design delivery across agencies, between jurisdictions, across channels and with the private and non-government sector.
  • Put users at the centre. Remove a government-centred mindset from problem-solving. Be ethical, compassionate, empathetic, and accessible. Listen to the voice of the user and conduct rigorous user research. This reinforces the citizen-centric approach.
  • Recognise that all life events are not the same everywhere. Governments need to build solutions to suit local circumstances. Citizens need multiple ways to navigate to services rather than duplicate services. — Dr. Alan Thorogood and Dr. Kate Harrington

The authors would like to thank many colleagues in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the UK and the USA. For requests for future updates contact Alan Thorogood

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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