Revisiting the Routine Citizen Experience

As government websites evolve, a simple vehicle registration renewal takes on new meaning.

There’s a relatively short list of interactions most of us have with government every year. Setting aside next month’s tax filings, the ones that come to mind most readily involve licensing people and things: drivers, professionals and vehicles. Of them, annual vehicle registration renewals may be our most frequent touch points with state government — particularly if you, like me, own more than one vehicle.

These transactions are relatively rare and routine. But those qualities also mean they have a disproportionate impact on our impression of public agencies. Governments only have a couple of chances a year to make their next impression. That idea is at the heart of the Government Experience Awards, a program introduced last year by Government Technology’s sister organization, the Center for Digital Government. As the name suggests, the awards were developed to recognize government agencies that are focusing on designing and delivering an overall experience for the citizen that is accurate, speedy and secure.

So when a renewal notice for my aging pickup arrived earlier this year, I paid a little extra attention to the process.

The renewal email notice from the state of Washington included the plate number and VIN for the truck, how much it would cost to renew the tabs (called “tags” in many states), and information about the three ways to renew: at a licensing office, online or through an express portal that requires a signup but serves as a licensing one-stop that you can return to over time.

The email also included a link to a disclosure on the department’s site about the 19 requirements for renewing my car registration tabs. (It is worth noting that this seemingly daunting list is the distillation of the 135 sections of the administrative code that governs vehicle licensing in the state. No mean feat in the transition from an atom-based past to a bit-based present.) Not much had changed since the renewal about five months earlier of another vehicle, so that lengthy list proved to be more visual noise than things that had to get worked through. Curiously, my password management software apparently misremembered my credentials in the intervening time, but resetting them was simple, much like the best of the dot-coms.

The experience was not bad for government. It was relatively quick to complete, and probably as simple as it could be, given the many regulatory requirements that the department sought to streamline. The most confusing part of the experience was losing track of the renewal link as I paged through the informational links. A big “Renew Now” button would have been handy.

Of course, the site used Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (https) on its transactions pages. It also included a badge at the bottom of those pages declaring that they were secured by the state’s single sign-on application gateway, but the badge did not link to anything — not even the “About” page for the gateway.

Opacity around a password-based access system is all the more striking when experience-changing models are gaining traction. The financial services industry is shifting toward invisible authentication, which learns trust by getting to really know users and their interaction with applications — even (and maybe especially) on mobile devices. It comes to the question of secure access through the lens of risk, location and reputation, and device attributes, among other factors, all of which happens in the background and, as the name suggests, is invisible to the end user.

Car tabs are just car tabs. In that way, renewing them is just a routine transaction. But the renewals are conducted by the public agencies that hold unique records about personal identity to which others refer. Getting that experience right has consequences well beyond a simple transaction.