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Can Government Change the Online Citizen Experience?

State and local governments have poured time and money into online services, but while some work, others fail miserably. Understanding citizen behavior is the key to success.

ALBANY, N.Y. — For New York state, tax collection is a very big business. In Fiscal 2016-2017, the state collected $71.2 billion in taxes and fees, including $47.6 billion in personal taxes. Like government tax and revenue agencies at every level, New York wants to automate the collection of revenue as much as possible. 

So far, 90 percent of individual tax returns are filed electronically. But when it comes to returns filed by tax professionals who serve businesses and individuals, the number drops to 66 percent, according to Andrew Morris, director of tax processing at Taxation and Finance.

Speaking at the New York Digital Government Summit on Sept. 21, Morris pointed out that his department has poured resources into online services and support, so that taxpayers can resolve problems and get answers to questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“But we still handle three million tax related phone calls that come in Monday through Friday, from 8:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.," he said.

Despite the best of efforts to get tax professionals to use the department’s online services, they continue to call by phone, tying down workers. “We need to market our services to these tax professionals,” he said. But getting them to switch from the phone to the department's online services hasn't been easy. It's a universal problem in government.

How citizens behave toward online services is a new kind of risk that state and local governments are just learning about, sometimes painfully, said Luke Charde, head of User Experience Design at New York’s Information Technology Services. The reason efforts to move services online sometimes fail is due to the “cornfield” effect, he said, referring to the scene from the film Field of Dreams, when Kevin Costner builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield and ballplayers from the past miraculously appear, leading to the famous phrase, “If you build it, they will come.”

But unlike the film, it doesn’t always happen. “Government has a lot of lofty expectations with new mobile apps and online services,” he said. "But then the expected change in behavior doesn’t appear.”

Despite the challenges with tax professionals, New York’s Department of Taxation and Finance has done quite well in terms of moving its numerous services and processes online, according to Charde.

“Tax and Finance has been leading the way in online services,” he said. “There is a consistency in voice, interactions, buttons, across their applications.”

But for government in general, behavior of citizens stands in the way of ROI. “That should strike fear into us,” he said.

Forrester, the market research firm, analyzed the array of mobile apps available to the public and found that the government market can be judged successful by the quantity of apps available. But when it comes to usage and quality, the government market is littered with apps that few people consider to be good, or no one uses, including several that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, according to Charde.

The problem is the lack of good data to analyze whether or not citizens are getting a good experience from the online service.

“You cannot improve citizen experience with just aggregate data,” explained Charde. “You have to get qualitative data from the users. That data can get you to the questions you need to answer.” 

One bad way to try and measure citizen experience is through a lengthy customer satisfaction survey. Charde displayed one survey that had more than a couple dozen questions and rhetorically asked whether anyone had the time to fill it out. Instead, an agency should put a simple quantitative question at the bottom of its app: “Was this service helpful? Yes or no.” Then the agency should add a box in which the user can explain why he or she liked or didn’t like the app. The response rates to simple quantitative and qualitative questions can be very high, according to Charde.

Besides using a simplified approach to quantifying what works and what doesn’t, Charde suggested government agencies turn to a number of techniques to improve the citizen experience, including the use of Net Promoter Scores, which can gauge customer loyalty to an organization’s services or products, or behavioral economics, which have been proven helpful in nudging citizens toward behaviors that reduce costly errors. Usability testing is another important tool.

“You can watch how people fail and learn from that,” he said.

Ultimately, a better understanding of citizen behavior and their experience with online government apps matters, according to Charde, because it can foster continuous improvements and innovation.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.