Chancellor Phillip Hammond delivered his first Autumn Statement recently, which included high praise for the tech sector and its influence on the British economy. As recognition of the growing influence of the digital economy, the Chancellor invested £1 billion pounds for faster broadband and 5G in the UK. This is excellent news for consumers and businesses, providing a welcomed boost to digital services and productivity. However, government departments or local councils looking for a boost in funding to improve digital services were left empty-handed.
Adding demand without building capacity
The investment in faster broadband and cellular infrastructure shows that the demand for digital services in the UK is high. As more people become connected to high speed internet, the expectation for businesses and government agencies to use digital channels as a means of engagement with customers will grow.
However, the Chancellor failed to build on the momentum established in last year’s Autumn Statement where £450 million was injected into the Government Digital Services for digitising public services. Now we are heading towards a traffic jam when it comes to the way citizens engage with the government. The improved access to high speed broadband will create additional demand of online services with the government, but does not build additional capacity for digital engagement.
Soon we will have more citizens digitally empowered and engaged, but unable to access basic government services online, particularly at local level.
The current situation
When someone goes shopping online or looks to engage with a private sector organisation the process is more or less the same. There might be slight variations, and some organisations might be more advanced than others, but the experience is fairly consistent. On the other hand, when engaging with government, there is no consistency at all.
Some government departments have great digital experiences, while others are well behind. Then, when it comes to local government, it varies from one authority to another. This can be incredibly frustrating as a citizen. For example, while it is relatively straightforward to lodge a self-assessment with HMRC, it can be very difficult to track a passport renewal with HM Passport Office, especially during peak holiday season. Then if I want to pay my council tax or apply for a parking permit in my local authority – it is entirely hit or miss.
Compounding the problem, no two government organisations are in communication with the other. So every time a citizen interacts with a different department they must enter the same basic information such as address, date of birth and national insurance number. This customer experience could be greatly improved so that if I logged in for one department, they knew exactly who I was based on my interactions with other government agencies. This is improving greatly across central government thanks to the government’s verification tool GOV.UK Verify, which launched in May 2016.
This tool helps to authenticate citizen identities and provide a simple and standardised way for people using online government services to complete transactions. It provides that improved customer experience that was outlined above. But local governments are currently unable to use this tool.
Digital services as a vehicle for long-term cost savings and efficiencies
Of course, there is a lot at stake for governments and no one is saying digital transformation in government it is easy. Government is under constant scrutiny and the threat of cybercrime is higher than ever. It is a fair assumption that consumers have even higher expectations of their government than a private sector enterprise. Research from Verint found that 20 per cent of consumer do not trust any of their service providers to keep their data secure. The stakes are certainly high, but there is also considerable reward for the government to get this right.
It’s no secret the government is facing budget pressures. They are delivering services for a growing population, but have fewer funds to deliver them. Improving the digital experience will not replace the need for customer service teams, but it will allow the government to streamline its operations and boost efficiency – creating significant cost savings. As more and more government agencies improve their digital experience, the demand for digital services across other departments will grow even more. This will create even more opportunities for cost savings and efficiencies.
The important first step
The government already has a ready-made solution that will help provide that connected user experience we all crave but is robust enough to allay security fears. The problem is that it is only available for central government services. So we are still a long way off that consistency that we crave across various levels of government.
The good news is that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has announced a pilot project to give local councils access to GOV.UK Verify, helping citizens of these authorities to make applications for travel passes and parking permits. But currently only 19 authorities have signed up to the programme. The first step for the government to boost digital engagement is to make this tool available to local authorities.
The Chancellor’s investment in digital infrastructure is certainly welcome, but it needs to be supplemented with funding for government to improve how different bodies engage with their citizens online. As more citizens gain access to high quality digital infrastructure, demand for a much-improved customer experience across all levels of government will increase significantly.
If the government is serious about using digital engagement as a means to make ongoing cost savings, it requires upfront investment. This investment will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain. Making Gov.UK Verify available to local authorities is a vital first step to create a consistent process. Doing this would help to ease the pain of the lack of investment in this Autumn Statement.
David Moody, VP and Global Practice Leader, Government and Public Sector, Verint
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