Key takeaways

  • Governments must innovate, but implementing digital for the sake of technological novelty underestimates the real value that can be added.
  • Digital transformation should be the enabler of innovation, not just the innovation itself.
  • By freeing up capacity, digital solutions allow departments to provide value to everyone, no matter how they choose to interact with their government.

If history is any guide, government and technology don’t always seem to mix.

Newspapers are awash with examples of digital government failures. Online portals that fail at mass adoption. IT infrastructure projects that spend millions only to be shelved when a new party comes into power. Websites that underperform and don’t conform to accessibility or availability standards. Services that fall apart at critical junctures.

Many public services performed by the government – such as providing information and support to citizens – are well suited to an online environment. For answers that are repetitive in nature, a digital solution makes sense – allowing people to self-serve high volume transactions in an efficient way.

But governments often stop at this point, failing to recognise the continuation of the experience into channels beyond self-service. This is often a missed opportunity, and results in the failure to capitalise on the true benefit that such a service provides – the ability to then do more.

The wrong question
gets the wrong answer

There will always be part of the population that have the capacity and desire to self-serve through digital, but equally so, there will always be those that don’t. While simple queries can easily be answered online, complex ones, or broader issues affecting the most vulnerable, often can’t. And many times it is these queries that go unresolved when overworked service staff cannot give them the attention they deserve.

Government faces a dilemma when it comes to going digital. Face-to-face is incredibly important when it comes to care for complex citizen needs. But with a need to justify (and procure) spend, governments often implement digital as a progress-showing solution, rather than the enabler it should be thought of. And while a new government portal or chatbot is likely to grab a headline, whether it provides value to everyone (and how) sometimes becomes secondary to the real story.

Part of the issue lies in the difficulty that government has when it comes to affecting digital transformation. Namely, that digital self-service cannot always be the only solution. This is especially true when considering that no single technology is going to suit an entire population.

Digital solutions have the potential to free up frontline staff from lower value, or repetitive work, to complete higher value tasks and address more complex issues. More efficient use of staff means time and money that can be spent elsewhere, providing assistance to citizens in all the ways they need, fulfilling the mandate of governing.

Transformation in government should begin – not end – with the technology going live.

Doing good
with government tech

Digital can be done well in aid of this goal. Former chief digital officer for the Commonwealth’s then Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, uses the UK’s civil service to illustrate how understanding those in need – and what they require – has been the key to success.

Speaking at a conference in late 2017, Shetler argued that instead of relying on those with purely technical expertise to implement digital, the UK has “taken people who worked in call centres, […] who worked in shopfronts — the people who have the most empathy with the end users, who know the situation best, who know where things break and where people need help — and turned them into the product managers, designers, developers and so on and so forth that they desperately needed to digitise their business.”

In short, the digital solutions that helped reduce the demand on staff allowed those same staff to help in other ways, including implementing other ways to solve problems.

And there are many amazing ways in which technology can be used to benefit government in this way. In Los Angeles, for example, chatbot CHIP (City Hall Internet Personality) advises 180 people a day on business matters that would otherwise be answered by human staff. Since implementation, it’s halved the amount of email correspondence that the department gets.

Undoubtedly, those government officials, freed from repetitive emails, now have more time to focus on members of the public with more complex needs. That is the real news story.

Things to consider
(before opening the purse)

Many transformation issues can be addressed by thinking about innovation for the people (and that means all the people), not for the sake of the technology. Addressing the following questions will go a long way towards understanding the true power of digital.

The end-to-end experience

First, does the technology enable a streamlined and holistic experience for the user? Or does it fracture, confuse or alienate? The public’s experience may begin at digital self-service, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) always end there. Any technological implementation should enhance the experience and provide value, not take away from it. A chatbot that does nothing but point users towards a website or call centre to get routine information is not helpful. What is helpful is if a digital enquiry is proactively followed up on by service delivery staff where an online experience leaves off.

Innovating for all

Second, who will use it and who won’t? For those with disabilities or living in remote locations, there are many benefits to an online service (providing the technology is built to be accessible) over physically attending a service centre face-to-face. If it allows people to get an answer they’re after quickly and easily, particularly where they don’t need any complex follow up, it’s more likely to be a hit. But don’t forget to think about who won’t use the service. What could your digital solution enable for your physical ones? What will true innovation look like past turning on the tech?

Know how, or no way

Lastly, is the department or agency set up to manage the experience with the appropriate technical knowledge, tools and resourcing? Once the bar for experience is set by a seamless online interaction, citizens expect a continuation of that ease into their next phone call and visit as well. Are staff enabled to deliver? Messages and help must be the same across all interactions, regardless of being digital, physical or via telephone, so service delivery staff musn’t be forgotten in a department’s digital future.

If you answered yes
to the above…

Governments shouldn’t be afraid to innovate, and for the sake of their constituents, they need to. But that innovation does not necessarily need to be solely digital, instead, it should be enabled by it. Rather than communication channels that should be surpassed, face-to-face centres or telephony options should be aided, or streamlined, by their digital brethren.

Focusing on the latest technological wizardry will be a setup for unnecessary failure. This is as true for chatbots as it is for blockchain, the Internet of Things or artificial intelligence.

To truly serve citizens – which after all, is the end goal – government needs to focus on complementing existing services digitally, or providing new access points and services that cannot scale face-to-face. But they must do so in the right place and for the right people, and use the capacity gained from doing so to provide additional value elsewhere.



Gulandam Khan

Gulandam Khan is a manager in PwC Australia’s Experience and Insights Consulting practice.

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Digital Pulse: Dean Isreb


Dean Isreb

Dean is a manager within PwC Australia’s Experience and Insights consulting practice.

More About Dean Isreb