Same message, same audience — how to reset stakeholder relationships

By Stephen Easton

Friday August 26, 2016

Big brands have shown that one way into the hearts and minds of consumers is through their smartphones, and government agencies are getting in on the action too, hoping mobile apps will lead to more constructive relationships with the general public, target groups and employees.

Their well-founded belief is that most of us will be happier to listen to messages from the government, or from management, and do what we’re asked to do if they make it all a lot easier and quicker — and it always helps to lighten up a bit, too.

“I daresay I think there’s probably more value in that than Facebook or Twitter.”

The ACT government hopes Canberrans will welcome its notifications popping up on their smartphones as it redesigns services for digital delivery and tinkers with smart city ideas.

Meanwhile, there are promising signs from the Department of Employment’s foray into gamification as another way to nudge unemployed people into jobs.

Employment’s chief information officer Stephen Moore says its JobFit app probably wouldn’t even need move the needle up on employment rates that much to be worth the investment.

“If we had an impact of 1% on the number of jobseekers getting back into work, that’s big,” he told the recent Technology in Government conference. “We’ve got 750,000 people on income support looking for work.”

The Australian Public Service Commission says its new Ripple performance management app is “designed to be low friction and fit into users’ daily lives” and was developed, in part, because “the APS has thrown a lot at performance management over the years” and still has room to improve.

Similarly, JobFit uses elements of gamification to repackage jobseeker assistance — something else the government has also thrown a lot at over the years — in a quicker, easier and more light-hearted format.

David Colussi
David Colussi

The ACT government’s iConnect app is more typical of digital transformation projects for mass service delivery. According to David Colussi, the ACT government’s director of digital experience, it will be a multi-purpose portal for a new generation of services that are being redesigned from end to end.

Colussi has high hopes that it will lead to happier and more productive relations between residents of the city-state and its government.

“We imagine a one-click service where, for example, Mary might be having a cup of coffee in a local cafe and we push a notification to her that says: ‘Hey, congratulations on the birth of your baby last month … we know this is a really busy time for new parents, but don’t forget to immunise your child. Would you like to book now?'”

Getting people to happily accept push notifications is a pretty steep hill to climb, especially when more often than not, they are only saying a bill is due.

“Of course, this requires the customer to opt in to such a service, but we feel that across a jurisdiction like the ACT government, there are so many services available that we can provide a really good value proposition to the customer,” said the optimistic Colussi.

“I daresay I think there’s probably more value in that than Facebook or Twitter, but it’s up to us as a government to be able to show that value and unlock it for the customer.”

He later suggested that having one government deliver public services that are normally split between state and local level will make it easier to increase the app’s value proposition over time. “In some ways that’s quite neat, because it actually gives us that opportunity to integrate those services where they have touch points within the one public service.”

And being a tiny enclave inside the most populous state where most of the federal government is found presents opportunities to bridge the gaps in the federation as well. “We will always look to federate our service offer, particularly into New South Wales,” said Colussi.

The sweet spot between boring and demoralising

The Department of Employment turned to gamification for unemployed people who are low on motivation, confidence or basic job hunting skills. But it has to be careful about how it prods jobseekers to fix up their appearance, or their resume, or to be less choosy about jobs they are willing to take.

“The bottom line is that actually, over that two week period, 80% of the users actually did something different.”

Tips on maximising your chances of success in the job market are hardly rocket science, but for a lot of job seekers, it’s definitely a case of easier said than done.

It’s tough out there if you’re making ends meet on NewStart allowance, Moore reminded the conference audience, and that financial stress makes finding work even harder. Mental health is often a factor and a “reinforcing cycle” of self-doubt often sets in as unemployment becomes longer term.

Depending on personal circumstances — jobseekers are a diverse bunch — such assistance programs can have the opposite of the desired effect for some, coming off as patronising, annoying or unreasonable. Delivered the wrong way, they can make the whole task of finding work seem even more daunting.

“We were very conscious that for government to do this … we couldn’t be seen to be trivialising the issue of being unemployed and the process of getting back to work,” said Moore. “But by the same token, if we’re going to engage people and so on to help them, there has to be a bit of fun involved. So that’s an interesting tension to think about in this space.”

Stephen Moore
Stephen Moore

The CIO had an idea that gamification techniques could be used to gently influence the behaviour of users, and was given “a fair bit of license within the organisation” to run an initial trial with 52 users over two weeks. It’s a tiny experiment, but Moore felt it was big enough to give some useful early indications about the app while keeping the cost under control.

JobFit isn’t very much like a game at all, but it is gamefied in the sense that it essentially relies on rewarding the user, in this case for becoming more employable. The rewards need no value in the real world, their purpose is only to stimulate a sense of achievement and success (the same technique honed with ruthless efficiency by poker machine manufacturers). Just like in a video game, you keep coming back to get more points, go up more levels, unlock new items, or just to trigger new animations and happy tunes that haven’t come up before.

The app is conceptually based on fitness tracker apps; it awards users employability or job fitness points for certain activities or for completing timed quizzes (with cheat sheets). At its heart, it encourages users to keep trying to build their score and move up to a higher “JobFit zone” but it also has a goal-setting function, in line with the theory that people are more likely to achieve ambitions they write down.

“Points disappear after 14 days, so you can’t just rest on your laurels,” Moore said, explaining one of its harsher rules. “You’ve got to stay engaged and keep going.”

In future, it could have more features and link to the department’s existing job hunting app, which is all about actually finding and applying for real jobs.

The real test lies ahead

Moore says he will know in about four or five months whether the new app is worth scaling up to full production, but he believes the results so far definitely justify a much bigger trial with five employment service providers at one site.

“We’ll survey the jobseekers [and] the consultants, because the consultants are probably the best people to tell us about changes in the jobseeker,” he said. “And remember, we’re trying to influence their behaviour and improve their motivation, so it’s hard to measure that objectively, right?

“We’ll also invite the jobseekers to link their JobFit account with their online myGov jobseeker account and if we do that, then we can track their administrative data so we can see whether they’re attending their appointments at a higher rate than perhaps they did before and so on and so forth.”

He believes the results from his initial toe-in-the-water experiment, which involved surveying the 52 users every two days over the fortnight and running a focus group at the end, are promising enough to justify the expanded trial.

“Half of them updated their CV — three of them actually wrote one, which was nice — but half of them changed their CV on the basis of information in the app, through the quizzes and the cheat sheets,” Moore explained. “People applied for roles that weren’t their first preference [and] there’s discussion in the app about how open are you to looking for any sort of job or how flexible are you in your job search?”

Four of the group thought about relocating during the trial, six lowered their wage expectations, 13 applied in a new industry, 17 went for temporary jobs, and the same number applied for jobs that weren’t their first preference. Seven purchased or borrowed interview clothing, 10 went to job interviews, and 16 looked at education and training options. At the end, three of the 52 were offered a job.

Moore can’t assume that any of these particular results was entirely due to the app but he still thinks the data is promising. “The bottom line is that actually, over that two-week period, 80% of the users actually did something different,” he said.

The trial also involved participants rating their likelihood of getting a job and motivation levels throughout, and this provided some insights to guide fine tuning.

There was the suggestion that over a longer timeframe, they might get bored and lose interest; a significant number of users found the information too basic and not personalised enough to be as useful as it could be.

JobFit also had an initial demotivating effect on average, but motivation started to pick back up and surpassed the base levels. “A few of them said: ‘It made us realise this is tough,’ and for the first couple of days that was a bit [daunting], so that’s certainly one of the risks we’re looking at,” said Moore.

The countdown timer on quiz questions was meant to be pretty generous, but Moore says it still “freaks some people out” so the plan is to lengthen it even more, recognising that low literacy is often a factor in long term unemployment. Making it easier also pushes up the aforementioned risk of boredom and makes it less fun and rewarding, but it sounds like the focus is sensibly skewed towards the people who need the most help.

Much like having cheat sheets that give away the answers, Moore says “the point is they’re learning something” not to set people up to fail and feed the sense of self-doubt that afflicts so many long-term unemployed people.

For the larger trial DHS is working with an academic to help design the experiment. “I think that’s an important thing,” said Moore. “If you are looking to try things and experiment, it’s no good having a dodgy experiment because that doesn’t tell you anything at all.

“And university academics are desperate for topics for research, because that’s how they get measured these days, so usually they’re interested to work with you and sometimes you don’t even have to pay for it.”

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