Dan JellinekEditorWednesday 17 April 2013

Digital Focus

It is all very well making services "digital by default" - but how do we know which services citizens have the strongest wish to see digitised, and prefer to use online?

In fact, this question raises wider issues of how well we are focusing any of our public services on what citizens want, the panel heard at the recent UKA Authority Live debate "Channel Shift - are we moving towards Digital by Default?"

Kit Wilson, Newport"It's not just about digital, it's about how do councils make decisions?" said Kit Wilson (left), customer services manager at Newport City Council. "We shouldn't just be making them based on our assumptions of what we feel is best practice. You need to be listening to what your customer is saying."

Information sources available to local authorities include data from customer relationship management (CRM) systems; annual citizen surveys; and citizen consultation panels run by many councils including Newport, Wilson said. "In our last citizens panel we put in a couple of questions about digital by default services, [asking] when did they feel that was acceptable?"

One clear message from citizens is that they do not want to have to keep logging in and identifying themselves to different services, the panel heard.

Rebecca Kemp, GDS"The citizen has no interest in seeing what service comes from central government and what comes from local government", said Rebecca Kemp (right), policy team leader at the Government Digital Service. "In terms of identity, we're not looking to create new log-ins for new digital by default services, we're looking at how we can use organisations where people already have identities to authenticate people's use of public services."

The issue is the same within local government, said Wilson. "At the moment within our website you can sign on separately for revenues and benefits, leisure and libraries, and that's just for one customer in one council. Now if you're on Amazon you don't log in three times to buy a CD, and then to buy trainers, and then to buy a stereo."

Newport is working with its supplier to create a single account for all its online services, but "why do we have to stop there?" asked Wilson. "Surely it should be wider, and it should be one account for local and central government?"

One obvious problem with that concept is that, while citizens want convenience, they do not want their privacy invaded, Kemp said.

"If you say we should have one account for all public services, that makes a lot of sense, and people like it", she said. But if you then say we want a central government database that stores everyone's details, it is a different matter.

Of course, in the real world of limited budgets there are limits to how fast a public body can move in digitising its services, the panel heard: "You want to create services that are available through the means the customer wants to access them, but you also have an obligation to the taxpayer to make sure you are providing those in a cost-efficient way," Wilson said. "So it's about getting the balance right when we prioritise the services we put online. We choose the ones that are high volume... but we also listen to our customers and it's the ones they want to see as well."

Historically, all public services were built around ease of the organisation providing them, not the customer, he said, but this culture was now changing, and this includes presenting information in clear language.

"We're moving away from a world where council websites are written in 'council-speak' and jargon, structured how the council is structured internally."

Martin Greenwood, SocitmMartin Greenwood (right), director of Socitm Insight, said his organisation has also identified this as a major problem. "There is far too much jargon in local authority websites. We picked out in particular social work as an area which is full of jargon which is difficult for the average person to understand. Planning is another, housing is a third.

"Part of the problem Is the move there has been in the past few years to devolve content to a wide range of people to put on the website, and those people are just not well enough trained to be able to do it and so they tend to repeat the way they communicate within the organisation."

Clear style guides are part of the solution, and Kemp said the Government Digital Service is in the process of producing such guidance.

In the course of the live online debate, a question was raised by a listener which does not tend to be asked that often - namely, are there any downsides to making our public services much easier to access and use? Are we sure we can handle - or afford to handle - all the increased volumes of use that might result?

Haydn Knight, CapitaHaydn Knight, director at Capita Software Services, said that there is a prospect of greater use, but this should be managed rather than avoided. "If we provide easy access to services then hopefully people are going to engage and use them, but it's about setting expectations in the delivery of those services", Knight said. "So for example with reporting a pothole, people want to know what you are going to do about it, so you set expectations."

Handling incoming request volumes can be an issue with use of social media, Wilson said.

"The danger sometimes can be people send you a general message saying I have got all of these queries, and that actually involves a longer process than speaking to someone face to face or over the telephone, because you probably have to go back to them several times.

"So we're trying to encourage those we do shift online to use the appropriate forms that are structured to bring that information to our back office systems rather than bring it in in a bland generic way that needs interpreting and going back to the customer, because that will ultimately delay the process."

Ultimately, if an organisation constructs its website well so it points users to the appropriate, structured service, overload will not be an issue, Wilson said. "You should just see the same demand coming in on a different channel."

Another challenge raised was the rapid pace of technology change. Can the public sector keep up with the sheer range of ways people will want to access services?

"At the Government Digital Service, that's why we talk about digital services, not websites, because we don't know what technologies are going to come up, and the services we have we want to be able to use on all the different devices people have," said Kemp.

"There has been a lot of debate about mobile apps lately, and some people feel you should have a particular app for [each device], but we feel you should build a good mobile service that works on everything."

One key message that emerged from several strands of the debate was that digital services are an opportunity to do things differently, not just a new channel for the same old services.

"Try not to put your services online in the same way you do them offline," said Knight. "You need to change that user experience.

"We talked earlier about online banking and the Amazon experience and sites like that, I think that's what our citizens expect our local authorities to deliver, that rich experience that requires the least amount of intervention from their side so they can get in, do the transaction and get out quickly."

Does this sound like your digital service?

Watch now: Channel Shift - are we moving towards Digital by Default?