Re-engaging with the citizen

The relationship between citizen and government is rapidly changing, in part driven by developments enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, but also because of the political rhetoric that has developed over the last six months. Citizens expect a lot more services for little or no cost, and although the public sector has always maintained a steady relationship with customers and citizens, the movement towards technologically enhanced relationships is now changing the game.
    
Today citizens want services on their own terms, at their point of choosing, via their own chosen route (for example; mobile, PDA, TV, internet). They increasingly demand services designed to meet their requirements, rather than the needs of the government. Demand is growing for more favourable experiences, less time-consuming and more accurate services when interacting with agents. And the e-government strategy, published in April 2009, sets out a commitment to do this using IT to deliver services in new ways, focusing on the needs of the citizen rather than on those of government departments. The strategy put in place four guiding principles to improve this relationship: to build services around citizen choices, make the government and its services more accessible, and to use information better.

Improving public services
Many public sector organisations have gone very far towards meeting e-government requirements, and have done well, with success largely based on leadership and innovative, creative thinking. For example, the growth of web 2.0, self-service, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions has brought the ability to respond quickly to customer demand, and create new services quickly and efficiently. The current popular theory being that with faster, more reliable government services, public service is improved and participation in government is therefore increased.
    
Various studies have shown that by moving services online, governments can and are saving up to 70 per cent of the cost of providing services. Off the back of this, the government set a target of closing more than 95 per cent of citizen and business-facing websites and moving the content to Directgov and businesslink.gov by 2011. Websites like Directgov today are delivering a wide range of services. And with more than 14 million visits each month they are swiftly becoming known as the place to go to apply for a job, plan a journey, find local services on a mobile phone, and find clear information about income tax, benefits and employment. Engaging with the community in this way shows that the government is adapting their services for today’s environment, engaging with the public through their (the citizen’s) preferred route. The government is beginning to use technology to re-engage with its public, so that citizens can be more involved with the process. And with this new technology, might it just be possible to engage the citizen with the governing process too?

Understanding citizens

To continue to meet today’s demands, public sector organisations need to gain a better understanding of the concerns and requirements of the citizens. Changing relations can be strengthened by monitoring how effective citizen interaction is, looking for ways to maximise opportunity for service improvement, and feeding back requirements. This has been done very effectively in the private sector through proactively seeking to explain new initiatives and secure feedback using channels such as Twitter, blogs, public wikis and virtual communities. In fact this has been done so effectively that the public now sees these channels as standard means of communication. This has raised expectations from the customer perspective, but this should be countered carefully with those arguments for security and privacy.
    
In the private sector, citizens expect positive experiences interacting with agents along with high degrees of accuracy and on-time fulfilment. And now e-government initiatives are set up to realign operational activities around the citizen to enhance service levels. A key component to these programmes is often a Customer (or Citizen) Relationship Management solution, providing the mechanisms to help capture a complete view of each citizen.
    
Customer insight and information is vital to developing services based around citizen needs, as well as better equipping agents to answer inquiries about complex matters such as taxes, and enable self-service so that citizens can find answers on their own. With the ability to attend more closely to individual cases, the service deliverer can gain a more human face – and support “buy in” from the public.
    
Birmingham City Council has a far-sighted vision, developing a customer centric service to help meet its ambitions and citizen obligations. With an innovative plan of action, they intend to build upon their back office SAP systems and then link through to the customer, such that each customer could potentially receive a completely tailored service, specific to their own needs. This will reduce cost for the council, provide them with a richer understanding of their customers, and over time allow for a better more integrated and closer relationship. This may then result in greater trust perhaps, and a greater willingness to participate in the local agenda. By creating new services quickly and efficiently, the government can meet the changing demands of the public.

Challenges
What information can be shared is not always what should be shared, and there will be a dynamic tension between provider and receiver of services. Legislation can go so far to draw the boundaries, but it will be about user choice to opt in or opt out of services. Perhaps the more a citizen “opts in” the greater the trade off against other government related services, and so more shared data could mean easier access to other services, or potential “loyalty points” to be put towards council organised activities.
    
Equally, there still remains a large proportion of the population that are excluded from the digital world, and whose many interactions are face-to-face or through call centres and the world of Integrated Voice Response (IVR) systems. The days of the impersonal “dumb” IVR will soon be over, and as technologies merge, a great potential could be realised by merging the council’s view of citizens who traditionally communicated with public service providers in a very different way. For those who inevitably remain outside of the digital world there will need to be fuller use of existing support networks – like UK Online, the Post Office, and UK Libraries, who act as the intermediary and deliverer of services and information.
    
With these changes underway, it is vital for public sector to focus on the capabilities that can deliver value, meet demands, and exceed expectations. By keeping abreast of new trends, organisations can continue to transform the delivery of government services, and in turn transform the relationship between government and citizen. To truly succeed, governments must go beyond basic cost saving and improving service effectiveness in order to shape citizen perceptions about programmes designed to service them.

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