The most basic duty of any government agency is to provide services to their citizens. However, citizens are increasingly interested in accessing these services online, instead of having to visit a physical location. Research from Accenture found that just over a quarter of US citizens “reported being satisfied with current government digital offerings” and that “more than nine in 10 citizens (92 percent) said improved digital services would positively impact their view of government...while 72 percent said expanded digital services would both increase their overall satisfaction with government and increase their willingness to engage, results showed.”

While shifting citizen preferences mean that agencies will have to change the way they engage with the public, they also offer opportunities for cost savings. For example, the IRS issued a report finding that, during the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2014, live assistance cost the agency anywhere from “$42.33 per live-assistance call to $53.64 per inbound correspondence.” By comparison, each digital transaction cost only $0.22. As a result, the agency determined that “digital taxpayer service presents an opportunity for the IRS to greatly reduce costs of taxpayer service and provide more capacity to meet growing demand for taxpayer service.”

Keeping it Simple Serves Citizens Well

Agencies and businesses alike are taking notice of the opportunity to better serve their audiences while simultaneously saving money. According to Gartner, “in 2022, self-service will account for 64 percent of customer engagement, compared to 48 percent in 2017.” In an interview with GCN, Gartner analyst Brian Manusama notes that from an automation perspective low-complexity tasks (such as scheduling an appointment at the DMV) are often the best place to get started - likening them to the express lane in a supermarket. These sorts of requests can sometimes be addressed through something as simple as an FAQ on an agency website.

However, Manusama cautions agencies not to “step into the trap” of “looking at self-service from the inside out, from a government perspective where it’s beneficial. It needs to be beneficial for your customer, for the citizen.” Research from global consultancy McKinsey & Company supports this caution, noting that “despite their best intentions, many governments continue to design and deliver services based on their own requirements and processes instead of the needs of the people they serve.”

Websites Still Reign Supreme

In order to ensure the focus remains on citizen needs, McKinsey recommends asking citizens to rank their level of satisfaction regarding a range of different criteria - from their overall feeling of “value for money” to specific areas in their “journey” where citizens feel stuck. Rectifying problems is often less a matter of making more services services available in a digital fashion (although this may well be necessary) and more a matter of better informing the public of what services are already available, online or otherwise. For example, McKinsey’s research found that “perceived value for the money [raised in taxes] was determined largely by how well residents were informed about local services.”

In practice, many of the services citizens are looking for, and the means to inform them of the availability of said services, will be done through a website or self-service portal similar to the kind consumers use to access medical records or schedule a doctor’s appointment. Indeed, while sometimes overlooked in today’s world of blockchain, IoT and AI, the humble website is still how most citizens interact with their governments in the digital realm. A site or portal with a substantial FAQ, a place to view previous records, pay bills and find contact information (or better yet, send messages) will go a long way towards assuaging citizen concerns. Creating a framework for citizen self-service doesn’t have to be hard but it should be robust and it should be built from the citizen’s perspective.

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