What digital citizen engagement in Local Government should look like?

Using digital methods to improve citizen engagement in local governments was the theme of a round table discussion facilitated by Jos Creese, a digital consultant, thought leader and veteran local government CIO. The roundtable was hosted in Future Cities Catapult in London on June 1, 2017 and was sponsored by novoville.

The group had a broad experience, covering both public and private sectors, UK and Europe, technology and other professional disciplines. The discussion tackled a range of topics relating to how councils need to approach digital customer-service design.

There was strong consensus on the importance of designing for smart-phone access (mobile apps), for both public and staff – a “council in my pocket” as was strongly stated. This way not only can you access the services that you want in the way you want, but you could select the range of interests, transactions, and information relevant to your needs and preferences.

Transparency is seen as a key enabler. This includes using data to open up information about the inner workings of councils and their performance, as well as access to information and transactional services. The roundtable highlighted that councils need to move closer to their citizens – finding out what they really want, not what councils staff think that citizens want. This was seen to involve getting citizens engaged and responding to their needs and preferences through co-design and delivery of services.

Incentives to encourage citizens to change their habits and to use (and to trust) digital services from councils may also be required. Simply moving to “digital-by-default” to become more efficient, and so keeping down council tax, is not a strong enough argument in itself for citizens to interact that way. The question to answer is: “how will the citizen actually benefit”?

At the same time participants agreed that trying to transform the 600 to 700 services that a council operates all at once was risky at best, and not achievable. Yet, from the point of view of the citizen, there needs to be “whole system thinking” in the way services are designed for digital delivery in the future. Sometimes councils find it tempting to design a digital customer service experience based on the way services have operated in the past. This is partly because of legacy systems but also because of legacy thinking and practices. A more radical approach requires designing around the service-user (the “customer”), so that they feel understood, valued and involved.

At the same time, one of the weaknesses of digital transformation programmes, especially where it impacts on customer service, is poor marketing, selling new initiatives and communications. Simple and understandable language about what changes are happening, why and how they will impact on people, is compromised by jargon or an assumption that people will ‘just get it’.

There was an interesting presentation by novoville on their UK survey of citizen behavioural patterns. This contained new findings as well as confirmation and reinforcement of views previously identified. For example, people want to know in simple terms how their taxes are spent. They want to know about local issues in their area (more than national impacts). And they want to be able to access services designed around their needs and interests.

The survey also found that more than two thirds of citizens had interacted with the local council more than three times in the last 18 months. Some of this was around service failure (i.e. a need for a repeat visit), while 50% reported that they were happy with the service that they had received.

So public demand is clear, and in terms of data and digital services, over 85% were prepared to share their personal data if digital services are useful and if they understand why data is being collected and how they will benefit. Notably, 45% prefer social media as a channel to interact with their council, and over 80% will use their smartphone to do so.

The results showed an engaged group of citizens wanting digital services to ‘feel and look’ like Facebook or other popular services with a single account and simple, single login. The novoville approach of ‘progressive authentication’ which means that citizens are not asked for more data than they need at a point in time, was used as an example – citizens are only asked to add more personal data when required for more complex or sensitive transactions with the novoville citizen smartphone app.

The roundtable group also considered the challenge around supplier rationalisation in delivering more integrated customer services. Whilst a patchwork of systems carries risks and challenges, so does a dependence on a few big suppliers. Currently many councils have duplicate systems for similar functions. New approaches to procurement, especially around joining up services and introducing greater invention, require a true partnership with suppliers, large and small. Councils increasingly need to buy services, not products, but some suppliers simply want to sell and move on. To this end participants agreed that councils need to work more with start-ups that introduce more flexible and innovative services.

Click here to download the discussion notes.

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