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With work on the Digital by Default agenda gaining pace throughout the public sector, many public bodies are reconsidering their approach and trying to remove the barriers that prevent citizens from accessing services. This can be difficult to achieve against a background of reduced budgets.
The channel shift to digital is playing a big role in improving accessibility, as are self‑service options, but more work still needs to be done to ensure that service users are supported.
A recent survey conducted by iGov and eGain aims to give a snapshot of how services are accessed by users, and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that users’ needs are met. 437 people were surveyed, with 328 public sector organisations represented including the NHS, Central Government, CCGs and housing associations.
The wider picture
Experience of digital service delivery in the private sector is driving up expectations of the public sector. While it’s not always possible to match these standards, ‘discoverability’ should be prioritised so that citizens are kept aware of service availability.
How and when services are accessed should be acknowledged. Organisations are increasingly aware of ‘media stackers’, consumers who access digital services through handheld devices whilst watching television or engaging in other media use. If appropriate investment is made in channel shift, these users can be reached.
Above all, the public requires consistency when using public services in terms of advice, policy, expectation and experience.
The iGov report says: “Inclusive services should be discoverable, available and tailored to all citizens at a convenient and appropriate time and place, as chosen by the citizen and provided by the public sector. Furthermore the support of those services should be consistent across different interaction channels and flexible enough to provide resilience and choice.”
The iGov survey found that while most organisations view channel shift as an important part of their agenda, only a third have put in place a strategic approach. However, of those that have more than half are planning to review this strategy over the next 12 months, showing that they recognise the speed of change needed to keep apace in the current climate. Only three per cent of those working to a channel shift strategy had no plans to review it.
It was found that the main perceived benefits of channel shift were cost reductions and efficiency improvements. However, less than 40 per cent of those surveyed said their organisation had assessed the business case for providing multichannel support. It is important that the delivery of channel shift is driven by an understanding of how it benefits citizens.
When it comes to reaching varied groups of users, 36 per cent of respondents said their organisation supported customers through a multi or omni channel support service, compared to 43 per cent who had individual channels for different services. Of those with multi/omni channel support, just over a half say their platform is accessible to all users – a disappointing figure considering that public bodies must have an accessible website under EC law.
Understanding service users
A picture emerges from the survey of organisations failing to gain a holistic view of user experience. Individuals were asked about their service’s capabilities in areas like tracking a journey from start to finish, recognising and offering alternative channels and pre-empting potential user problems. 50 per cent were unsure whether these services were available via mobile apps, and three quarters did not know if they were available through SMS. One positive sign came from mobile services – almost a fifth said they could measure customer satisfaction through mobile surveys. 69 per cent of the organisations that had researched their user digital capabilities said that the majority of users were online but still needed assistance to access services.
The effects of low take-up
Respondents were asked about the impact poor service adoption had on their organisation. A majority (29 per cent) were most concerned with the costs involved with low take-up, while a quarter were most concerned with the risks to reputation. Just under a fifth were hopeful that in the event of low adoption rates their organisation would improve the new channel beyond project expectations.
Only 16 per cent had “considered or quantified to a meaningful degree” the impact of low service take-up, a figure iGov finds worrying: “This is a major risk as potentially, new ways of delivering services could be alienating or excluding individuals who could previously access as and when required.” They call for public sector bodies to take greater advantage of available digital solutions.
Obstacles to improvement
When asked about the barriers to creating or supporting new and improved digital channels, cost came out as by far the biggest hurdle, with around 80 per cent citing it as a potential obstacle. Other barriers included a lack of systems resources (just over half) and inadequate manpower (around 45 per cent). Poor familiarity with technology use and data security emerged as the least problematic, each cited by around a quarter of respondents.
The survey compilers conclude that while the public sector is making progress with the switchover to digital services, there is a “major risk that the broad range of citizen needs and preferences have not been adequately considered and that this could challenge the channel shift business.” They warn that public confidence could be undermined by inconsistency, and that “certain segments (such as those requiring Assisted Digital)” could swallow a disproportionate amount of the costs involved.
They recommend a number of steps organisations should consider taking before transitioning services, arguing that access time should be extended to assistance and service user satisfaction, and that targeted contact should be improved by improving chat and web self service options outside business hours. They say there should be ‘context-sensitive help’ that adapts according to analytics.
There is also a recommendation to give citizens the choice of several platforms when accessing services, as when customers’ interaction history across a range of channels is easily viewed it can help organisations become more efficient.
The survey compilers sum up by saying: “Above all, make sure that services that are delivered are supported by inclusive support channels, and that these are available to all.”