Put citizens at the heart of public sector tech projects

Private sector companies can’t roll out successful new services without considering the customer and it should be the same for the public sector

The way the UK government delivers services is going through the same kind of transformation we’re seeing in our personal lives with a shift towards online. Businesses that get our trust, trade and time are the ones which are most customer centric. Yet officials delivering public sector technology are only just waking up to this idea with a new focus on citizen-centric services. 

Whitehall has ambitions in this area and top officials are on the hunt for a chief digital officer. The job is to “better leverage data and emerging technologies to design and deliver citizen-centric services.” This newly created role, near the top of the Cabinet Office hierarchy, shows how important these issues are. However, it’s not without challenges. 

Making public sector technology work for the end-user

Many systems operate in silos, since they’ve been built up and upgraded gradually over many years, others are outdated, running on incompatible architectures and operating systems that are difficult to integrate. At the same time, the needs of the citizen have fallen between the cracks, as public sector leaders have scrambled to manage technical complexity and resources.

How the public sector procures technology may be the issue and a major challenge impacting many projects, including the rollout of applications that are easier to use by the general public.

“Ultimately, digital transformation of the public sector must start by regaining control over the supply chain. For the last few decades, the public sector has been encouraged to outsource its IT services to third parties,” explains Romy Hughes, director at Brightman Business Solutions.

“Many departments have become beholden to outsourcers for the delivery of many of their long-term goals, including citizen-centric services. Since you cannot transform what you don’t control, the public sector needs to take back control of its supply chains before it can deliver many of its goals.”

Despite there being 17,000 digital, data and technology specialists across government, £2 billion is spent each year on IT outsourcing, according to the Arvato Outsourcing Index, the value of which has climbed over time. Yet many public sector technology services aren’t meeting the needs of the very people they’re supposed to serve.

“According to our research, more than two thirds of citizens we polled complain they receive disconnected experiences from public sector organisations. This is a major cause of frustration,” says Ian Fairclough, vice president for customer success, Europe, Middle East and Africa at MuleSoft.

A 360-degree view of the citizen needed

That’s not to say there aren’t platforms out there delivering first-class services. The simplicity of HM Revenue & Custom’s website to deal with millions of furlough payments during the height of the coronavirus-induced lockdown earlier this year showed how it can be done effectively and without a significant meltdown.

“HMRC is a great example of citizen-centric services, which continues to evolve and improve. Many local authorities have also led the way, as was demonstrated by the speed at which many were able to deliver online portals to administer grants and support at the start of the first lockdown. They were able to deliver services quickly because they already had a wealth of experience doing it for other local services,” says Hughes.

Also, local government understands local needs and that’s a key element. Citizen-centric digital services start with public sector leaders putting themselves in the shoes of the public. Taking a lesson from successful digital-native consumer brands would not go amiss. Most of their business models start with the customer and their data, then build outwards. 

“It begins with outcomes. Public sector organisations shouldn’t be building technologies that they think are the right services. It’s about engaging with the end-user and designing services with their needs firmly in mind. My 92-year-old grandmother can work a smartphone and WhatsApp the family because it’s designed for simplicity; if technology is done well, it can be more inclusive, not less,” says Richard Walker, partner for data and insights at Agilisys.

A good example is the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s use of GOV.UK Notify to remind people when they need an MOT vehicle test. The service is easy to use, pared down and uncomplicated.

My 92-year-old grandmother can WhatsApp the family because it’s designed for simplicity; if technology is done well it can be more inclusive, not less

“It’s easy for practitioners to assume citizens have a level of knowledge about a service that is simply not reasonable, which leads to workflows that don’t match citizens’ expectations and instructions that don’t make sense,” says Charlie Bruin, chief executive of Liberata.

“After all, an app may work for a public sector leader, but they’re not representative of their target base. Compared to most users of an application, they’re probably more experienced. Simplicity and truly understanding the user’s needs are crucial.”

Joining up public data is crucial first step

Data, and joined up data at that, is also key to delivering the next generation of citizen-centric services. The siloed approach within the public sector has not helped, nor has the myriad of services deployed using countless databases. As in the private sector, a single, 360-degree view of the customer is essential. Reducing duplicated information sources could save the government millions.

“We need to be more strategic about joining up multiple sources of data. I don’t think the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation helped. The tone around fines and penalties for data misuse obscured the ability to think of it as an enabler and the mechanism through which you can share information safely and lawfully,” says Walker.

“Take domestic violence, there’ll be things that hospitals know, things the police know and local authorities know, not to mention the third sector. What happens at the moment is we don’t share that information anywhere close to the extent we should to be able to take the preventative measures that must be at the heart of more effective public service delivery.”

Hope is at hand for citizen-centricity

One potential answer is to drive innovation from the citizen’s perspective by setting up challenges that need to be overcome and how digital services can solve these issues. Barcelona’s i.lab is a good example of this, which begins by defining the problem then works collaboratively with stakeholders, including the public.

“The challenge is outlined to relevant players and the public. i.lab oversees the rollout of pilot innovation projects with different areas at the city council and municipal level, and if they are successful they then scale them up,” explains Georgina Maratheftis, head of programme for local public services at techUK.

There are also examples in the UK. They include the GovTech Catalyst challenge, which is a £20-million fund to help solve public sector problems, as well as TechForce19, aimed at deploying technology to help vulnerable people isolated because of COVID-19. 

Saviour of the public sector and its drive towards citizen centricity is the availability of cheap off-the-shelf tech solutions that are being deployed at speed by even the smallest operators.

“Early solutions were once costly, bespoke and only designed to solve one problem. However, the world has changed,” says Anna Assassa, chief executive of Tisski.

“Technology is now available to build open systems, accessible to multiple organisations, which brings all the relevant information together. Not only does this reduce the burden on an organisation itself, freeing up valuable resources and reducing complex processes, it also provides a much better experience for the public.”

Certainly, the future is now brighter.