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Three Imperatives to Put Citizens at the Heart of Digitizing the Public Sector

Text sign showing Public Sector. Conceptual photo the part of an economy that is controlled by the state.

Customer experience is at the top of the agenda for public-sector agencies. The opportunity for radical improvement extends to almost every service that governments deliver. We identify three issues that public-sector transformation efforts can address to keep citizens and their voices at the heart of digital experience.

There is opportunity for radical change in almost every service that governments deliver.

Creating excellent digital experiences for citizens is at the top of the agenda for senior government officials of all stripes. Technology supports an important mission: providing high-quality services to citizens. With citizen expectations evolving, updating technology is not the goal, but a means to an end. Instead, public-sector agencies must put the citizen at the heart of digital transformation efforts. The voice of the customer is important and central to successful government technology programs.

Citizens expect technology to improve their lives, especially in the way that technology can make everyday tasks more intuitive, efficient and transparent. The opportunity for radical improvement extends to almost every service that governments deliver, especially those still attached to legacy systems. Making significant forward jumps in functionality and accessibility requires a deep understanding of citizens’ needs so that service providers can meet people where they are.

The reasons for putting customers at the heart of public-sector transformation are significant. We have broken down three imperatives that provide the groundwork for governments to reimagine the future of citizen experience.

Imperative One: Adopting a Product Mindset Drives Value Creation and Continuous Improvement

Citizens have become accustomed to convenient and easy-to-use digital services from the private sector, which has raised customer experience standards to a much higher level. This step change has happened, in part, because commercial software providers have adopted a product mindset way of working to manage risk and survive the fierce rate of change and competition that is the norm rather than the exception in the industry today.

Adopting a product mindset means development efforts are organized very differently. Rather than an offering being managed by many functional owners in a piecemeal fashion, the offer is managed end to end by a product manager who has general management responsibility for delivery throughout the entire life cycle. Pioneered in Silicon Valley and now widely adopted, this model includes highly integrated multidisciplinary teams, evidence-based research, agile development methods, iterative user testing and a lack of hierarchy that favors value creation for both customer and provider.

Most government agencies have yet to understand and support this shift. The old analog project staffing model of services management and delivery persists and has yet to give way to this radically different way of working. Furthermore, both organizational design and procurement play a big role in fostering adoption of these new practices. Public-sector leadership and guidance are needed.

A product mindset will enable governments to achieve their mission of bringing the latest available digital services into the lives of people who need them. This is a world where the product is never “done” and is always undergoing continuous improvement which is organized and staffed in an entirely new way.

Imperative Two: Digital Communication Is Key to Engaging With Citizens

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, public-sector agencies have focused on improving citizen experiences with a range of digital tools from contact center enhancements and surveys to better customer relationship management (CRM) software and an increased focus on omnichannel solutions. These can help agencies communicate more effectively with their constituents, enhance two-way interactions, encourage feedback and boost engagement.

It is fantastic to see progress like this, but more strategy is needed. It is clear we’ve come a long way in using digital technology to enhance digital communication with citizens. However, while each technology can be viewed as tangibly improving customer-centricity by some margin, the bigger picture for why communication is a vital part of digital transformation efforts can get lost in the shuffle.

Developing true digital engagement requires a movement from one that not only accommodates but drives business goals as well as mission outcomes. To address low government industry satisfaction scores, agencies are keen to develop more trust with citizens as an overall goal. To get there, digital communication — particularly if it is personalized — has been proven to drive higher engagement and participation from those interacting with service providers, whether they are a commercial brand, nonprofit or government agency.

While greater digital engagement and participation are certainly desirable outcomes for public services, the bonus of investing in communication is risk management and compliance. Risk can come in many forms, including lack of awareness causing underutilization of a service, process abandonment when instructions are unclear or confusing, or even a complete lack of feedback from users, which happens more times than anyone would like to admit.

Citizens are usually inclined toward compliant behavior. But if instructions are difficult to understand and execute, it is unlikely that there will be a high level of compliance. For example, tax regulation is a rich area for compliance problems given the diversity of our tax base and the level of complexity for filing certain information. In this situation, poor compliance could result in inadequate tax collection which in turn lessens the amount of money available to support government programs. This is one reason Congress awarded the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) $80 billion for systems modernization.

Imperative Three: Digital Transformation Supports Equity and Accessibility for All

Government agencies are keen to promote that accessibility and inclusion are not an add-on or afterthought. They are emphasizing a strong commitment to equity. This includes being aware of the risks of digital exclusion, while at the same time leveraging technology to make services more accessible.

To ensure relevant conversations and interactions, government agencies are focusing on citizen goals to provide for their population’s requirements in the most efficient way.

Within this responsive structure of technology and trained staff, it’s important that no segment of the population gets left behind. A technology-first approach could broadly “fail” in its ambitions if the government offers their residents technology that’s capacity constrained, not accessible for people with disabilities or not what communities have asked for or require.

Marginalized residents, particularly citizens with disabilities who may struggle to access brick-and-mortar institutions, could benefit greatly from digital offerings if they are deployed in a meaningful and accessible way. This includes making sure that these services are inclusive and accessible in terms of their content and functionality. Examples include ensuring image descriptions and captioning is available on videos, addressing language barriers and ensuring keyboard and screen reader accessibility. It also means making certain that digital exclusion does not stop citizens from approaching, accessing and benefiting from government services.

When it comes to the question of whether the public sector can put the citizen at the heart of digital transformation efforts, government agencies must focus on three key imperatives — moving toward a product mindset, enhancing communication and ensuring digital equity and accessibility. These three pillars offer a solid foundation for governments to reimagine the future citizen experience.