As government and public sector organisations increasingly
turn to the internet to connect with the public,
a new approach to user experience will pay dividends
In many countries, government and public service IT once had a poor reputation: monolithic IT projects sucked up public money and delivered late, if at all. In recent years, this has changed, however, and governments across Europe and elsewhere have successfully digitised services.
Today, almost every encounter between citizens and the state can be performed from behind a laptop screen, with the internet acting as an intermediary. From motor tax to passport applications, more and more services are available at the click of a button, and Ireland has not been a slouch on this front.
Billy Kennedy, principal user experience (UX) designer at digital agency Each&Other said that the country has successfully digitised many of its services.
Now, however, he said, it was time to take a further step forward.
The impression I get is that Ireland has done a good job in digitising stuff, but if you compare it to other countries, what Ireland has done is digitise paper forms.
This is no small thing and allows citizens to save time and avoid the hassle of queuing in offices, but Kennedy said that more can be done.
“What other governments have been trying to do is think, taking an approach centred on what kind of information they need. They often go to a quite fundamental level, they do the research with both users and other stakeholders,” he said.
Pointing to Britain’s Gov.UK site, Kennedy said key questions being asked were: what is the best value and how can they try to avoid gathering information that is not useful.
Another positive is that government services are offered in an extremely uniform fashion.
“Everyone from HMRC [the British tax office] to government departments have to go through the same process. As a result, you get a very joined-up portal which is very consistent,” he said.
One of Each&Other’s successful projects in government IT was a reworking of the Houses of the Oireachtas website.
“It was a hugely high-profile piece of work, and is pretty important to the functioning of an open democracy,” Kennedy said.
Typical users of the site range from TDs and senators as well as their staff, to journalists and other researchers and, of course, members of the public. The importance of the site as a source of the historical record placed a significant burden, as its key function is to make important information available.
Naturally, accessibility was important, but in the widest possible sense: the information needs to be accessible rather than locked up in confusing archives.
“The types of people who need this information among the general public are often among the most vulnerable, so having it easily searchable and tagged is very important,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said that there is a fundamental approach to how people use government services that could do with a rethink. At least one government agency has done this, he said.
“One of the things people speak about most positively is the Revenue site, which is reasonably simple compared to say the HMRC, which [by comparison] is very form-based. The Irish approach leads to a human response, and that's one of the things that is the best about it,” he said.
In essence, digitalisation does not necessarily mean automating everything. Instead, it can mean making the process more human.
Before returning to Ireland, Kennedy worked in Britain on two projects intended to address people who have a fear of the authorities and direct them to services that were available to them, including one aimed at victims of abuse who lacked legal settled status in the country.
“We did a huge amount of insight work, talking to them and finding out what they think, talking to social workers; that was a successful project as we saw a rise in engagement with social workers.
“The other one was about knife crime. Again we engaged through one-on-one conversations. What was great about that was, because it was a digital medium, the kids felt they were able to remain more anonymous. They were able to obtain mentorship and ask questions,” he said.
More than anyone else, it’s important for the government to engage with the public about their needs, Kennedy said, and this meant developing a consultation process.
“There should be a very healthy back and forth about need and requirement, and that changes over time”.
One example is that with public internet usage moving away from laptops and desktops to other devices, there is a need to develop apps.
“Governments are really only coming to mobile apps now, for example,” Kennedy said.