In recent years, private-sector sites like Amazon.com have begun to offer an increasingly streamlined shopping experience for users, one that personalizes the site to their tastes and directs them quickly to what they’re looking for. It’s because of this that citizens now expect the same ease of digital service from government.
State officials across the country are aware of the trend and have started working to address it. For most (if not all), the goal is to go from the previous way of doing things — a disparate and siloed set of websites for each public agency in the state, sometimes connected by a singular funnel — to a sleek and centralized digital presence where constituents can have all their government needs met, seamlessly.
This is far from new or secret. In fact, this need for one-stop government shopping, sometimes called an omnibus Web solution, was a topic of discussion at last month’s National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) meeting in Austin, Texas.
Creating a customer-centric digital strategy is something state technologists have desired to do for some time. What's new is that states such as Georgia, Utah and Ohio have made substantial progress toward reaching it, toward becoming Amazon-esque.
Few states have done better at mirroring Amazon’s customer-centric approach than Georgia. Chief Digital Officer Nikhil Deshpande spoke about it at the Georgia Digital Government Summit.
During his presentation, Deshpande said the foundational elements of the state’s work have been fostering buy-in across agencies, data-driven decision-making and creating one source of information for consistency.
To foster buy-in, Georgia combined user testing with video capture to show the faces of citizens who experienced problems with services.
“Just seeing users struggle with some of those pieces, that changes a decision-maker’s mindset,” Deshpande said.
Creating a culture of data-driven decision making was beneficial too. A challenge still facing government, however, is accommodating every last person in the state, not just customers like a private company. Systems must be made for people who use all devices, from laptops to Amazon’s Alexa to old-school phones, and they must be accessible for people with disabilities. There are also people who still interact with government in actual buildings. This, Deshpande said, is tough, but creating “a single source of truth” for all channels ensures consistency. This source for Georgia is its website, which was created with best practices that make it easily adapted to new tech like Alexa.
In Georgia, the days of visiting multiple websites for information are gone. The next evolution is a system in which people can conduct all financial business with the state — from paying taxes to renewing licenses — in one place.
In Utah, support for a centralized customer-friendly platform is coming down from the Legislature.
Two years ago, the state passed legislation for a single sign-on business database. The initial desire of one of the bill’s sponsors — Rep. Bruce Cutler — was the creation of a central locale where residents could handle all interactions with the state, logging in once and not having to go to any separate sites. That goal, however, is one that none of the 50 states have accomplished. As such, Utah CIO Michael Hussey said government workers determined it was too lofty and instead focused on first making it happen for businesses.
Utah has built a prototype for this. The prototype, however, is more than just a centralized, customer-centric Web portal. The state can also use it to send texts directly to business owners alerting them when it’s time to renew licenses. The development of the site, which hasn’t launched yet, has involved many stakeholders, including the Utah State Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Bar Association and the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants.
A remaining obstacle, however, is a familiar one for state government: funding. Support may come down from the Legislature again, though, with a bill currently under discussion that would fund the launch of the prototype via a $3 fee for renewing business licenses.
Hussey also pointed to buy-in from state agencies as key, as well as from members of the legislative branch.
“There’s going to be savings for the state,” Hussey said. “I think it will be more convenient for businesses in the state, it will be more efficient, and, actually, I think we’ll have better compliance. People won’t forget to renew their business licenses.”
One massive obstacle for Ohio is that not all citizens want the same digital experience.
“The premise for us is that with most folks, I don’t know if they really understand what an overall digital experience should be,” said Derek Bridges, a program administrator at the Ohio Department of Administrative Services. “If you ask a bunch of people what’s a digital experience or a user experience, you may get a mix. People think it’s a pretty website, people think it’s simplified content. It’s really all of the above and a little more.”
With that in mind, Bridges and Ohio CIO Stu Davis have landed on personalization as key to customer-centric digital efforts.
“People don’t love Amazon because it’s a pretty website," Bridges said. "People love Amazon because it gets you right to the content you want, expeditiously.”
Their work to date has focused heavily on creating an enterprise ID that makes it easier to identify who individual users are and what they need.
Ohio technologists also pointed to buy-in as vital to this effort. Bridges said some state agencies fear that shifting to one customer-centric government identity would mean forfeiting department logos, colors and individual sites. To that point, Bridges has been kicking off meetings about the concept by assuring agencies they won’t have to change logos or colors unless they’re out of compliance.
Davis said the fact that only five or six out of 50 states are making serious strides toward this concept shows how big of a lift it is, specifically in terms of getting agency buy-in. Ohio, for example, keeps information about residents in 1,600 systems spread throughout more than 120 agencies.
Offering an individual customer-centric digital experience that matches that of Amazon is, of course, the state’s goal, but Bridges said state governments are universally behind private industry, and no amount of meticulous planning will get them past Amazon. So they need to start the work and do it in a way that enables them to keep moving forward.
“It’s a living and evolving strategy that we have to constantly try to put into practice,” Bridges said. “It’s not a set of technologies. Creating a good digital experience is not just throwing a portal over your state’s Web presence.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.