Comment Blog 8 March, 2018

Digital government: what citizens want

Reform suffered a little in the bad weather last week. Our excellent event on the future of the digital economy, and its policy implications, had to be postponed from last Friday given the impact of the snow on people’s travel. To fill the gap, I will highlight strong new research on the digital engagement of citizens with government, which is a key part of the digital economy.

The research is based on a survey by WPP of over 7,000 citizens in seven countries. It sought to understand “what drives a positive experience of online public services”. The research was supported by Adobe, one of Reform’s corporate partners.

Put in my own words, the result of the research is that citizens want as engaged and as enjoyable a digital relationship with government as they do with Amazon, Apple or any of the companies with which they engage as consumers.

Citizens say that they are happy with what the research calls the “functional” aspects of digital i.e. whether services are available online and whether they are available on mobile devices. They want government to do better on the more difficult tasks: better designed services, services that are tailored to the user, and services which allow the user to get involved in their delivery.

For the UK, this is valuable research because so many public services are wrestling with exactly this question of building real digital engagement with their users. HMRC is a perfect example. It has already pioneered online self-assessment as part of its creation of “one of the biggest and most dynamic IT operations in Europe”.  Greater Manchester Police and the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service show how services are using social media to build a new relationship with citizens, with the aim of improving public safety. The WPP research gives clues as to how and these other organisations can make progress.

It also raises a important question: should public services be expected to deliver the same standards of service as successful consumer organisations? The research notes that it is simply harder to provide a public service, for example because often the service has to be available to everyone (or nearly everyone) in society. Still, for citizens, the comparison between public and private sector is inescapable. Public services are not an island. In my view the pressure of expectations for better services is a positive pressure which can be harnessed by public service leaders.

Launching the Government Transformation Strategy with Reform last year, Ben Gummer said that citizens must feel that government is at their service, rather than the other way around. For me that is a big hope of the digital revolution in the public sector: to replace bureaucracy with something much more direct and driven by the wishes of the citizen.