The Citizen-Centric Government: Creating delightful experiences for citizens around life-events

This post is an essay we’ve written jointly with our partners BCG. The purpose of it is to explain the importance of being user-centred to senior leaders in organisations who may be completely unfamiliar with the idea. Because that’s an audience we don’t often write for, it has a slightly different style and tone to what’s normal for us. We’d welcome feedback on it.

The authors were myself, David Heacock and Milly Main from BCG Platinion, and Miguel Carrasco, Managing Director and Senior Partner of the BCG Center for Digital Government

BCG - Center for Digital Government
We worked with our partners BCG on this essay

Inevitably, governments can’t always give their citizens what they want, but it is increasingly unforgivable that they cannot give citizens what they need.

Along with handwritten letters and video rental, citizen perceptions of government as stable and reliable have fallen victim to the modern era. In a world in which trust has declined and remains low (see footnote), governments are finding that the status quo no longer suffices: people are less tolerant of slow-moving bureaucracy, defective technology and wasted taxpayer money. When governments deliver poor services, they undermine their legitimacy – increasing the perception of citizens that the government does not represent them or understand their needs. But governments can make up lost ground by delivering the services that meet the rapidly increasing expectations of their populaces.

In balancing these expectations with the pressure for efficiency, some governments have enjoyed real success; delighting citizens with user-centric service delivery that rivals the private sector, and re-building trust. Others have experienced false dawns.

What sets successful transformations apart is the ability of an organisation to become genuinely user-centred. Seeing the journey through the eyes and ears of the customer – on the surface – seems like a relatively trivial shift to make. Almost every large organisation working now, government or business, will have sought to understand how their users perceive them through consultation, surveys, focus groups and research.

But just asking questions isn’t enough. Over the past two years, citizen satisfaction with digital government services has declined by on average by 10 per cent, down from 61 per cent. Sixty-seven per cent of people experienced an issue with using online services — most were entirely preventable user experience problems like not being able to find things or understand government jargon.

Government services remain siloed and optimised for individual agencies — not a citizen’s life events. Many citizens reported they were unsatisfied with the ease of finding what they needed and the ease of navigating and using government services.

What tends to be missing is the recognition that being genuinely user-centred means fundamentally changing how an organisation works and behaves. 

Conway’s Law is a useful guide: “The way an organisation presents its public face tends to copy the communication structures of that organisation.” Change the internal wiring, and you can change the public face. Organisations need to be able to act on what they hear to articulate and translate what users want into delivery. 

It is relatively easy for online giants like Amazon – they were built to think and operate this way. For government departments and others sitting on a large inheritance of cultural, technological and process legacy, that kind of transformation represents a different order of challenge; one that can’t be bought out of a box or imposed from on high. 

It goes beyond trying to deliver public services in a new way and involves changing the traits of an organisation to allow it to rethink, redesign and iteratively improve services to meet contemporary expectations for what constitutes the bare minimum. Adding to these pressures, technology users are demanding increased data privacy protections and the ethical application of new and emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The good news for governments is that there’s never been a better time to act. Citizen journeys organised as end-to-end digital experiences can now be executed with a brilliant user experience and quality of execution that wasn’t possible ten, or even five, years ago. New Zealand, Singapore and Denmark are leading the charge in designing highly user-centric digital services around life events such as the birth of a baby, transitioning to retirement or the loss of a loved one. Governments pursuing whole-of-government digitisation today, actually have an advantage over governments that went first – they can build on what others have done, re-using open source code, and using process, operational and technical advances to create a next-level user experience.

They still face obstacles – such as a culture of risk aversion, siloed structures and competing stakeholder interests, heavy reporting burdens and onerous procedures – but these obstacles are surmountable. By adopting new ways of working, leveraging the experience and cultural fluency of experienced public servants, taking a whole-of-government approach and embracing transparency, governments can organise themselves around citizens and deliver better digital services.

Designing and implementing end-to-end citizen journeys means reinventing the physical ‘back end’ of government, including the operations and processes underlying a full end-to-end experience that often transcends organizational boundaries. If they fall into the trap of neglecting the underlying mechanisms of government, governments risk only tackling little things which may not pay for themselves, or parts of end-to-end services; like application forms but not decision-making, fulfilment or logistics.

Why become a customer-centred organisation?

For some industries, the case for change is simple and existential. Media, transport, music and travel are among the sectors upended by new entrants in the last decade. Banking and energy – sectors that governments often look to given their similarities in history, scale and complexity – are not far behind. Failure to move has consequences. New technologies, new operating models and new ways of working, all putting the citizen or customer at their heart, have a 100 per cent success record of disrupting incumbent industry players so far. The odds look good on that trend continuing.

The same will be true of government. Competence doesn’t always win elections, but incompetence and the loss of trust that creates can certainly lose them. Governments everywhere are under pressure to improve services and do more with less. By understanding what happens to people in the real world, and taking a radically ambitious approach to designing government services around life events, governments will be in a better position to earn back trust from citizens. Creating services designed around citizens means having empathy, respect, thoughtfulness and an understanding of good design and clarity of execution – qualities often perceived as absent from bureaucracies. Ironically, in the internet era governments may be able to reclaim traditional perceptions of reliability and esteem for the public service – if they are prepared to change. If the first 25 years of the internet are anything to go by, we can say with some confidence that if governments aren’t prepared to change, others will do it, either for and around them. Governments can’t go out of business of course, but they can certainly lose elections. In 2020, user-centred public services are table stakes. Those who don’t play the game well, will get kicked out.

And yet, despite its importance, the burning platform for getting serious about customer experience in the public sector, can sometimes fall flat. Senior government officials often fail to prioritise service improvement, efficiency, and getting value from suppliers. Fortunately, evidence points to several ways that taking a user-centred approach can yield positive, immediate benefits.

Governments might be surprised by the extent to which the ease of executing digital journeys has improved. Technology constraints used to mean forcing the integration of several technical and operational elements to create a journey, which tended to result in ‘lipstick on a pig’ rather than a holistic end-to-end user experience. Technologies, such as application programming interfaces (APIs), microservices and cloud computing mean that government silos can be overcome more easily by orchestrating data-sharing among ministries or departments without compromising privacy. And perhaps for the first time – with the increased influence of human-centered service design and the next generation of ambitious public servants who grew up on the internet – citizen journeys can be executed to a standard that comes closest to the experience citizens are accustomed to from the private sector.

Countries with ambition and vision have recently proved this, delivering tangible improvements in a matter of months. Peru built a beta version of GOB.PE, a universal website for government information, in just three months. The New South Wales government in Australia created a digital one-stop-shop for access to over 800 government transactions, increasing citizen satisfaction to 98 per cent. This is where governments enjoy another advantage over the internet giants. They start from a low base. It may be hard to imagine someone expressing delight at the smoothness of a visa application; but when that applicant had a painful, lengthy experience on a previous occasion, that gratitude will be real and powerful.

The problem with gratitude in government is that it is notorious for its evaporative qualities – the political dividend for building better online public services will only be paid once. Danish satisfaction with the national digital citizen portal sits at 93 per cent, but the government has announced its intention not to ‘rest on its laurels’. It is launching ten new citizen service journeys based on life events. With better services come higher expectations, which governments will have to step up to continuously. Rising levels of expectation and satisfaction do not always count for as much as they should within government. They tend not to motivate investment, relegating user-centricity to a bonus for when you have the spare budget or an aspirational “gold standard” for which taxpayers don’t wish to pay.

A more powerful motivation for becoming a user-centred organisation is the bottom line. Building services so good that people prefer to use them wins praise from citizens, and permanent, bankable savings. The Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom saved over £3.56 billion in the four years from 2011 to 2015. These kinds of sums are not just due to shifting people’s interactions to cheaper online channels. They are also derived from eliminating the failure demand that is created by poorly designed services and moving from expensive, bespoke technology to commoditised cloud-based services at the back end.

In government, even cash savings have a transitory quality, quickly swallowed up in other policy choices. The most telling long-term benefit of becoming a user-centred government is the talent it attracts into public service. Many governments despair of finding the digital talent they need to deliver their ambitious transformation plans. They can’t find the skills, or if they can, they can’t afford them. Both of these assumptions are myths. In almost every country, the talent exists, and in numbers that comprise a core of people attracted to the purpose and social impact that can only be realised in a public sector role. The reason many aren’t working in government is that they don’t believe they can have the impact they desire in the ‘normal’ bureaucratic environment of a public enterprise. Adapting the ways of working for customer-centricity can be a powerful recruitment strategy for the next generation of public servants and a driver of simpler, cheaper and better public services today.

‘Better for less’ is a dangerously seductive slogan in politics; becoming customer-centric is a genuine opportunity to achieve that. However, it cannot be done without making changes.

Making the leap

Pivoting an organisation as large, complex and well-established as a government department toward a user-centred way of working is difficult. It requires transformation throughout an organisation, from top to bottom. There is a great temptation to go big and fix everything in one go. This is a sure route to painful, and often costly, failure.

We recommend that public-sector organizations adopt the following four measures to overcome their challenges:

1. Deliver something small, working in a new way

In the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, the mantra was: “The best way to start is to start.” Setting up multidisciplinary teams to deliver high-fidelity prototypes, at a rapid speed, based on several cycles of user research and a clear policy intent, will secure momentum more quickly than any strategy document could. Showing the benefits of a new way of working is far more powerful than telling people about them.

Selecting the first exemplar project is a crucial decision. The Government Digital Service started with publishing, combining “thousands of separate websites” for individual government departments and agencies into a single domain, called GOV.UK. To do this, they created a dedicated team, with clear goals, and new and focused skills, collaborating productively across government. Several other countries – including Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Israel and Brazil, among others – have opted to go with a similar ‘single domain’ approach to put down an initial marker for wider transformation. Single domains represent a symbolic shift away from organising the information produced by public organisations around the structure of government (split between a vast array of inconsistent websites) and towards arranging it according to the needs of the vast majority of users – citizens.

In later iterations and based on thousands of hours of user research, GOV.UK has adapted its design over time, organising more information and services around specific customer and life-event journeys. Other governments start with smaller lighthouse journeys to gain buy-in, creating a rapid proof of concept and achieving quick wins. A federal agency in Australia responsible for providing a jobseeker’s allowance undertook a two-week co-design process with a cross-functional team, which included understanding user pain points, experimenting with new design solutions and measuring the impact of a beta design. It launched a beta website in one month and went live within two months, changes that will disencumber their contact center by thousands of calls per month.

Getting to this point has required those governments to adopt agile ways of working, where empowered teams comprised of a blend of specialists have been trusted by leaders to deliver value according to the needs of users. This has often meant taking intensely practical steps: setting up user research labs to conduct robust participant testing, hiring new disciplines like user research and content design into government and actively encouraging ministers and senior officials to observe users in the lab in order confront them with the translation of their policy decisions into working code.

2. Form the right relationships and get a seat at the table

When New Zealand created SmartStart for parents – a digital journey that joins up services and support during pregnancy and baby’s first years – the team responsible for the initiative recognised that relationships were the most critical factor in creating a user-centred service that transcends the boundaries of multiple government agencies. The success of a customer journeys program depends on the collaboration of various organizations as part of a whole-of-government approach, and it is crucial to achieving the right level and balance of relationships, both in terms of formal governance and the informal conduits of influence and trust that get things done in government. Stakeholders with the power to advance or derail a program should be kept close to the initiative and deliberately involved, and having dedicated product managers and owners responsible for driving these relationships and navigating cultural and political complications is vital. Frequent and deliberate communication helps teams overcome blockers and gain support and immersion showcases in which the team presents its progress keep momentum going and can replace the onerous reporting requirements that often weigh down government initiatives.

Appointing a group of connected and passionate leaders to steward a journeys program is also vital: any digital transformation program in government needs influential leaders who will bat for the team and advocate for the initiative at the highest levels. Having a seat at the highest table is mandatory.

3. Fix organisational blockers and integrate with government

Adopting customer-centric ways of working on a pilot program, or in an emergency, is one thing. Embedding those same practices into a large organization’s DNA is quite another. All too often, innovative user-centred practices thrive in internal ‘innovation labs’, only to find themselves without anywhere to fit in the broader organisation. Momentum and credibility are lost.

The problem with labs and pilots is they are often delivered – with the best of intentions – within a set of conditions that are mostly alien to the rest of the organisation. ‘Innovation’ is given permissions and freedoms not granted elsewhere, and hence is not tested against the realities of dealing with government at scale and all the legacy challenges that entails. Citizen-centric governments must pull off two things: avoiding the temptation to separating pilots of new ways of working from the operational reality of an organization and making the standard operating conditions of the organisation more conducive to the use of successful new practices.

For the first, an essential step is to ensure multidisciplinary teams charged with delivering minimal viable products include members of the team with deep operational experience in existing services. They should provide the expertise and organisational nous to navigate the team around the ‘unwritten’ rules, and be able to guide around roadblocks where previous attempts at reform have failed. They can also help raise awareness and understanding with other parts of the organization, reducing the risk these ways of working are seen as ‘other’, not for them and rejected ‘as another fad’. This includes professionals from within the organisation – such as IT experts – who can help navigate the integration of changes back into government.

For the second, many governments have chosen to adopt service standards that codify expectations for how service teams should deliver. These go beyond defining the expected look and feel for the design of a service, and into much broader issues around hiring, team composition, project management practices, open communications and governance. Without resetting specific corporate processes, teams following customer-centric ways of working will not be able to maintain the pace or quality of delivery of which they are capable. Equally, if they do not start small and demonstrate value quickly, those teams do not win the credibility and support required to challenge the corporate processes that will hold them back later.

4. Change the risk calculus

Unpicking and resetting the corporate processes of an organisation to support new ways of working is a significant challenge. However, changing the risk calculation is arguably the hardest job, as it is the one most likely to support those new practices being embedded for the long term.

One evergreen complaint about government is that it suffers from acute and chronic risk aversion. Attempts at embedding or encouraging new practices are often thought to have failed because officials were not prepared to take risks needed to work in a new way. Yet when organisations have been successful in using customer journeys to change their operating model for delivering services, it is rare they have actively tried to make people less risk-averse. Public servants are risk-averse for a reason – they must account for the use of public resources responsibly – and this sense of duty should not be quashed. Instead, successful governments have used techniques to alter the excessive risk calculations that people throughout the organisation make, to bias them in favour of new ways of working and tilt them against a default position of inertia.

Aligning on clearly stated mission and set of measurable outcomes, and incentivising leaders with direct rewards for delivering innovative new services or radically improving existing ones, have proved effective in the private sector. The lines of accountability in government are different, however, adding complexity. One solution, adopted by several governments including the United Kingdom and Italy, is to be bolder in openly publishing data on public service performance. The data is objective and automated, for example number of transactions, cost per transaction, the proportion of users who achieve a successful outcome, the reduction in addressable waste – but it paints a picture of the speed of progress and actual performance of our internal efforts in the real world without introducing the false incentives often created by hard targets, or the often-spurious results of customer satisfaction surveys. The other great advantage of objective, automated data, is that it cannot be gamed; no small thing at a time where government statistics are often treated with scepticism.

In both public data and public services, trust is always the most precious commodity. Pursuing life-event journeys can improve services, save money, and attract and retain the next generation of public service talent – and ultimately help the government increase the trust of its citizens. To get it, you have to start with user needs. Public sector organizations seeking to realise a holistic digital transformation can use customer journeys as the vehicle and catalyst for change to deliver better, faster and even — it is quite conceivable, delightful — customer experience for citizens.

Footnote: A low level of trust in government persists in Italy (43%), the United Kingdom (42%), Australia (42%), the United States (40%), Germany (40%), Japan (39%), Ireland (38%), France (32%) and Spain (26%) — 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer. Go back to top.

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