Better digital services could boost public trust — but where to start?

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday February 24, 2020

Boston Consulting Group senior partner and managing director Miguel Carrasco says a lack of trust is preventing departments and agencies across governments in Australia and New Zealand from delivering the effective digital services that the public has come to expect from the private sector. He gave The Mandarin his take on the vicious cycle governments find themselves in, how to overcome them, and who is leading the way.

While it has been assumed that poorly delivered services hinder public trust in government, there has been little data to actually back up that assumption.

So Salesforce and Boston Consulting Group surveyed more than 1600 customers and interviewed 20 government leaders from across Australia and New Zealand to find out. The research confirms that:

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  • Government transformation in Australia is being held back by a lack of public trust and concerns around privacy issues.
  • The expectations of Australians and New Zealanders are high, with 50% thinking government digital services should be as good as the best private sector organisations, such as airlines and banks.
  • At the same time, 85% of customers say the quality of government services and customer experience influences their level of trust and confidence in the government-of-the-day.

According to Carrasco, the findings show the relationship between customer service experience and trust in government, and all jurisdictions should be looking at how they can improve service delivery to rebuild community confidence.

NSW leading the pack

“The best example is what some of the state governments have done, and in particular Service NSW, through their modernisation of service centres, through the integration of their call lines, and now, the most recent announcement — to consolidate their online footprint to a single domain,” says Carrasco.

“I think NSW has really led the pack here.”

Service NSW is listed in the report of the survey results as an agency with an innovative approach to customer experience.

“Service NSW is a benchmark for customer service in government,” the report states.

“It is an integrated state service model and one-stop-shop for government transactional services that uses agile ways of working, customer journeys and cloud technology to deliver more than 1000 transactions and services for over 35 government agencies.”

Prior to the agency’s 2013 launch, customer satisfaction rates were 69% for individuals and 66% for businesses, the report notes. A few years later, customer satisfaction rates exceeded 95%. The agency is now migrating nearly all of its remaining on-premise workload to cloud providers to keep improving resilience and scalability.

An international example of innovation is New Zealand’s SmartStart initiative, which is built around people’s life stages, rather than the operational structure of government agencies. By taking an innovative approach, the service gives soon-to-be and new parents access to government services such as birth certificates and tax credits, and non-government support such as antenatal classes. The NZ government created SmartStart using a customer journey approach and collaboration between four agencies.

The Singapore government, like NZ, has built a service that centres on the lives of its citizens. The Moments of Life app allows individuals to register a birth and apply for the baby bonus in one form. They can also locate childcare centres or schools nearby, retrieve immunisation records and access other services. The app also offers some services for people aged 60+.

Carrasco believes it’s important to recognise when departments and agencies are doing things well, “rather than naming and shaming failures”.

“I think showcasing the success stories and understanding what it was that made them successful is important — and then how we can replicate and scale that.”

Utilising data and communicating the benefits

The report calls for greater transparency from governments when it comes to using customer data. Roughly 60% of survey respondents were concerned about the unauthorised use of government data, while the security of data troubled more than half. Nearly two-thirds of customers expect digital government services to perform at the standard of leading private companies.

“If [customers] have a poor experience with the front end of a service, then they start to question what the back end is like … that might lead to a vicious cycle of people being left uncomfortable and less confident about sharing their data,” Carrasco says.

Despite this, he argues individuals are more comfortable with sharing data about themselves when there’s a direct, visible benefit to them. Benefits of data could include a more streamlined service, or a more personalised, tailored service.

“There’s also a willingness with sharing data across levels of government if there’s a community benefit,” he says.

“However, there is a lot of room there [for public servants] to communicate the benefits of data sharing so people are more comfortable with it.

“What government can do in that sense is better articulate and engage the public on data sharing and what good it can do for them as individuals and good for us as a community.”

Where Thodey, Morrison, and the public have all agreed

The recent Thodey review of the Australian Public Service emphasises the importance of the APS embracing digital transformation, noting that Australia is behind other governments in that space. The government’s response to the review has been concerning in various ways. However, one of the only Thodey recommendations the government accepted in full is related to digital transformation — to conduct an ICT audit and develop a whole-of-government ICT blueprint.

The current federal government is open to the digital aspects of the APS review because it “has a strong focus on service delivery”, argues Carrasco, noting the data shows customers also think service delivery is important.

READ MORE: Who’s running things now? Why data is changing the roles of government and business

But where do public servants start, when breaking the cycle of distrust and poor service delivery?

The first thing is to start with the customer, says Carrasco.

“All the great customer service organisations start with the customer, you know. They start with a clear focus of being customer-centric, citizen-centric. And, you know, being deeply understanding of what it is that people are trying to do, or trying to achieve, and then designing and organising themselves around meeting customer needs.”

The second thing is leadership.

“It’s important to have leaders who are open to new ways of working and then supporting the adoption of those throughout the organisation.”

Thirdly, public servants must have adaptable, relevant skill-sets.

“People need to be empowered with the skills to be able to work in new ways. So, that requires a combination of apprenticeship and more formal training, and enablement and support.

“I actually find that many people are ready, willing and able to work in new ways. In fact, this is a more natural way of working than perhaps the artificial bureaucratic construct that was designed for an industrial era … we’re already in the digital era, but we haven’t modernised our institutional architectures and the blueprint for all organisations of the future.”

However, these three aspects must extend beyond the individual. Creating teams that are highly focused on customer outcome is the “recipe for success”, Carrasco says.

“People need to be clear about what that purpose is, and what it is that it’s expected of them … the hardest part for the government is to be clear about what impact they are actually trying to make, and how they’re measuring that success. Once you get those expectations of the team, it is amazing to see the energy and the light and productivity in the workforce unleashed.”

Breaking down the barriers

Barriers to public servants working in new, more effective ways must be challenged, according to Carrasco. These include institutional barriers, like budgetary funding and governance models, and the “false certainty” that comes from things like business cases and assurance reviews.

“My sense is we do have to tackle some of those institutional barriers and modernise some of those funding and governance models so that you can fund teams rather than projects,” Carrasco says.

“You can fund smaller pieces of work rather than everything heading to a massive program. And then by doing that, people will build great services over time, through actual testing with real users in real code, rather than designing things on paper in rooms.”

Public servants are often constrained by the organisational culture, rules and frameworks they’re operating in — and spending more time focusing on what ministers want rather than what the public needs, he says.

Finally, while dwindling public trust may seem like a huge challenge, public servants must not lose sight of their purpose. The public is “more tolerant than we think”.

“The reality is that to learn and innovate, sometimes you have to make mistakes, and it’s not the making of mistakes, it’s the learning that comes from the mistakes that makes you stronger and better,” Carrasco says.

“I think we need to make it easier for public servants to be able to try things and learn from those mistakes and build up things incrementally.

“So if we want to change the behaviour, we have to change the context.”

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