Federal agencies are increasingly looking to digitization to better serve today’s citizens. Some agencies have made great strides in bringing their services online in a user-friendly way. Others are leveraging social media in an effort to give citizens individual attention with questions and concerns.
But for every online success story there are tales of citizens having to use cumbersome, traditional services to access information. It’s not uncommon to hear about people having to make phone calls to check on the status of a claim or send a request via postal mail to change a password. Fortunately, the recently created White House Office of American Innovation has been charged with modernizing the federal government, which will hopefully build on the work begun in the last administration by the General Services Administration’s tech consultant group, 18F.
As digital services continue to be implemented, agency leadership should remember that solutions may look dazzling on paper but may be costly and even useless unless they are properly implemented. Introducing technology that’s intuitive and useful is just as important as rolling out solutions that are feature-packed and powerful. Educating users on why a change is being made is just as important as educating them on how to use the new technology. Whether it’s adding new features, changing the software’s interface, or introducing an entirely new service it is critical to get users on board to ensure adoption and achieve the desired outcomes.
Whether implementing digital solutions for citizens or for the employees that serve them, there are a number of factors to consider when designing, implementing, and rolling out today’s digital government.
Assess what’s already there — and whether or not it’s enough
The addition of digital services should not be done before taking stock of what already exists, or by assessing how easy (or difficult) it is for people to access the information they need.
First, look at the volume of calls coming into your agency’s contact center, as well as the types of questions people are asking on those calls. If hundreds of people per week are calling with the same question, that could be an indication that they are not finding the answer they are looking for on your agency’s website.
Perhaps the question could be answered via a self-service option on your site, an option that, done properly, can drive better citizen engagement. A person would never think to call the U.S. Postal Service to see where their package is if it’s not delayed — but if they were given a tracking number to click on, they might be more inclined to keep tabs on their delivery, even if they are not expecting it for several days.
A full-featured, easy-to-use self-service portal could help drive down call center volume while making it much easier for a user to find what they are seeking. Be careful, though; if the portal does not work properly, or is confusing to use, call volume could increase as users become invested in getting answers by any means necessary.
Finally, assess the information and services that are currently available online. You may find that the answer to the question that is being asked hundreds of times per week is on your portal, but that it’s not easy to find. Take steps to make the online experience more intuitive or use various means (social media, traditional or online marketing, or other) to get the word out that the service is available online.
Put the user experience first
Citizens have come to expect good user experiences and easy-to-use interfaces. They want the same clean, simple, and responsive design from government agencies as they do from any mobile app developer.
If you do not focus on developing user-friendly interfaces you will face two challenges. First, your call center will likely be inundated with more calls from frustrated users who could not easily find information.
Second, these users could develop negative perceptions of your agency, since the information they were seeking was not made readily available. Both cases can inhibit your agency’s ability to develop and cultivate positive citizen experiences.
It’s equally important for you to introduce user-friendly solutions to your own employees. Like average citizens, government workers expect the software they use on a daily basis to make their lives easier. Agencies often introduce new technologies or features with the goal of improving processes and productivity, however if those solutions are not intuitive, that goal will be very difficult to achieve.
The fact that people are creatures of habit is a huge potential stumbling block. Workers often become accustomed to using a particular type of software in a certain way (even if its inefficient to do so); that’s why people say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. If a solution is modified — even for the better — people may not use it because they’re used to something else. This is especially true if they were unaware that the changes were coming or why they were implemented.
Managers at one call center experienced this unwanted phenomenon firsthand. Their employees were accustomed to using software that required them to look in four or five different areas of their screens for the information they needed to address users’ concerns. That was too cumbersome, so the organization decided to introduce a fix where all necessary information was collected and displayed into a single pop-up screen. It was a much more efficient option — but no one knew that it was happening, so they did not use it, even though it was designed to make their jobs easier.
Instead of developing new features in a development silo, take steps to openly share the reason for the changes with the people who will be actively using the software. Doing so will provide them with a better understanding of why those changes were important, and how they are designed to help them do their jobs more effectively. That will alleviate employees’ frustration and spur more immediate buy-in.
Making lives easier
Both citizens and employees want government agencies to make their lives easier. Citizens want to be able to find out the status of an application or find a particular form through a few simple clicks, rather than having to call into a government call center. Likewise, government employees want technology to help — not hinder — their productivity.
Making self-service portals as intuitive and user-friendly as possible while proactively enhancing employees’ understanding of new technology initiatives benefits everyone. Citizens are able to find what they need, when they need it, without having to dial into a call center. Meanwhile, employees will be more apt to use new solutions — and use them effectively.
Doug Taylor is a program director for HighPoint Global.