Digital Services Aren’t Just Nice to Have, They’re Central to Public Service

It’s not about updating websites or building apps, it’s about meeting the needs of citizens.

The second anniversary of the US Digital Service last month provides the opportunity to consider the future of digital government.

One thing is certain, digital is not simply a side project of the White House, but a booming industry and an expected condition of business. The real question becomes not if, but how the government can mature and scale digital services – whether at USDS, across agency digital services teams, out of the 18F program now housed in GSA’s Technology Transformation Service, or elsewhere.

The IBM Center for the Business of Government recently released a report, Encouraging and Sustaining Innovation in Government by Beth Noveck and Stefaan Verhulst, which delves into how government can improve its use of digital technologies “to create more effective policies, solve problems faster and deliver services more effectively at the federal, state and local levels.” This, along with two upcoming reports, will shed light on this issue and provide a context for digital government. Drawing on this data, here are some thoughts as to how the larger digital services effort can move forward.

  • Citizen-centric design: Digital is not simply about making a mobile app or updating a website. It’s about meeting the needs of the user where and how they wish those needs to be met. The end user has to be at the forefront of all digital design and execution. Creating a single end to end citizen experience can require coordination across an entire agency and perhaps even across multiple agencies. The work USDS has done so far with Vets.gov, combining thousands of Web pages, over 900 information numbers, and 220 databases into a single site, is a good example of this user focus. The VA has put a lot of time into understanding their users and improving their experiences. They created their first veteran journey map and are retooling their services to better fit the user needs. While this may seem like a lot of upfront work, it is essential to a successful user experience. Forrester’s latest Customer Experience Index highlights that there is certainly room for growth here, as the government still falls at the bottom of the rankings. Mandates around citizen experience are going to be fundamental to improving those scores.

  • Secure technology that works: It’s perhaps too obvious, but the number one concern for a user, before the look and feel, is does it work? Do pages open, do links go to the right place, can a process be completed without it timing out, does it do what is expected? “Even the most advanced technology, designed with the end-user experience in mind, will be cast aside if it's slow or prone to glitches. That's because a mistake-free experience is the most fundamental element to a good customer experience,” writes Davis Johnson. Similarly, security has to be embedded into the design from the beginning. With the rate of attacks on businesses and government agencies steadily increasing, security has to be considered as an integral part of functionality and user needs. 

  • New capabilities that drive true transformation: Great new capabilities, such as cognitive and blockchain, will drive a new and better citizen experience. These technologies can increase interaction on digital channels, provide additional personalization for users, and even free up resources to work on more complex problems. For example, a cognitive help desk assistant can be deployed to answer questions and improve self service, similar to how USCIS uses their virtual assistant, Emma, to answer nearly 500,000 visitor inquiries every day. This allows employees to focus on more challenging cases and increases customer satisfaction across the board. The more capabilities that an agency employs to create a personalized and improved experience, the more citizens will use those digital channels and the more services an agency can provide. These capabilities will help government to move from just capturing “low hanging fruit" to true transformation.

  • Data for decisions, results, and transparency: Organizations can leverage massive amounts of available data to better meet citizen needs. Data, such as when users abandon a process or which questions are most frequently asked or when is the most site traffic seen, can help identify areas for improvement and inform design. Data can also be used to measure results. For example, The Department of Education, 18F, and USDS launched the new College Scorecard tool to provide reliable data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings. Within the first year, the College Scorecard had more than 10 times the users its predecessor had in a year. This kind of data helps organizations understand what’s working and what’s not. This is especially important for creating transparency with agency leaders, Congress, and end users – a recent concern about 18F and USDS from lawmakers.

  • Scale to size: Ideally, digital talent would be embedded in all organizations allowing for broader and faster adoption. In addition to expanding private partnerships, the government should continue its efforts to build up its technology and design workforce, not just at USDS or GSA’s Technology Transformation Service, but at all agencies. Part of this effort will require buy-in from other agencies and lawmakers. As the administration will shortly be transitioning, the USDS will need to help transition teams understand the value of a digital government.  

“The well-publicized failures of Healthcare.gov in 2014 enabled everyone to understand why the government’s ability to make use of technology matters. The central question facing the next administration and every leader is how to scale and institutionalize more technology-driven innovation,” write Noveck and Verhulst. Digital services are at a pivotal point for government; expectations will continue to rise as USDS and similar organizations mature and play the role of advocate for digital government as their original champions, led by President Obama, leave office. Continuing the momentum and helping to integrate and scale across agencies, and broaden the scope and talent pipeline, will be critical to its future.

Darcie Piechowski is the social media and innovation fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

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