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Why We All Need Self-Service and a Good UX

When the federal government rolled out its site to distribute free COVID-19 test kits to homes across the country, something pretty amazing happened. Residents were both surprised and thrilled by the ease of the experience. Social media chatter focused little on the actual tests, but instead exploded with comments around a simple user experience for a government service.

Users shared awed and even humorous reactions. One Twitter user posted, “I’m so used to government processes being over complicated, I thought I submitted my information on a fraudulent site!”

Government insiders posted as well, with sentiments such as, “The joy I’m seeing about an (appropriately) simple website to obtain a relatively meager government benefit…makes me think that tackling the much harder work to make more complex and essential government services easy would be rewarded by the public.”

My favorite comment may have been this one:

“The COVID test ordering site is so easy to use and simple and works great…imagine if all government stuff worked this way?”

Certainly, government service providers and users share the feeling that if we can figure out how to make something so simple once, we can do it again, for all types of services.

A Leadership Moment

This is a great example of government leaders recognizing and leveraging a constituent need or event to drive a new digital service. GovLoop noted in Leveraging Events for Modern Tech Adoption, “Public sector CIOs and other leaders can advance service model maturity by focusing on events that trigger business and resident engagement.” When we think about what triggers citizens to interact with the government, we can use those touch points to create improved digital services from which we can endlessly iterate.

Generational research that explored how different generations interact — or want to interact — with government agencies also showed that the top barrier to engagement with government, particularly for Gen Z, is having to navigate a frustrating process. GovLoop’s Why Every Generation Should Matter to Government noted that 40% of Gen Z survey respondents said clear, easy-to-use technology is the number one way to improve interactions with government. A full 76% of this cohort responded that better technology would go a long way to improving local government.

This insight is important to keep in mind. Pandemic disruptions continue; residents still need uniquely high levels of service and information in new ways. Leaders need to strategize over how to harness this momentum around digital services and move new technology from crisis to normal use.

Why Self-Service?

Self-service is a good first step in thinking about what comes next and how we can continue to have people visibly excited about their government experience. Innovative government leaders should be thinking about how modern technology can enhance internal operations as well as more easily meet the public’s needs.

Helping Government Staff

In New Castle County, Delaware, for example, replacing a legacy financial system with a more modern, enterprise-wide solution proved beneficial for staff at all levels. A redesigned chart of accounts, fully integrated purchasing, and flexible budgeting are just a few improvements a new system brought. To everyone’s relief, real-time reporting replaced offline spreadsheets created from point-in-time extracts. Touchless, paperless workflows are now the norm. These efficiencies significantly increased productivity and simply made day-to-day work easier for everyone.

Elsewhere, technology that enabled remote work will continue to be important as community and staff needs evolve. Familiar, in-person workflows, for example, transitioned to web-based cloud solutions like digital content management, electronic time sheets, and employee self-service.

It’s also the case that helping residents access services and information on their own relieves staff burden, freeing up resources for more strategic, higher-level tasks.

Helping Partners and the Public

Moving to digital processes in community development, for example, transforms interactions that used to require valuable time and resources, such as in-person permitting and licensing, into tasks that can be completed with a click of a button. Residents and business partners easily can engage with government on local development projects on their own time and without the need for phone calls or office visits.

El Cajon, California, for example, accelerated online services to include virtual inspections and plan reviews along with a civic engagement app. In Kansas City, Missouri, thousands of constituents now use an online portal to access the daily inspection tracker and fee estimator, among other resources, instead of creating in-person traffic at city hall.

Residents are also skipping lines in Mississippi, where an online scheduling tool allows them to schedule in-person, phone, or virtual appointments with agencies such as the Department of Public Safety. The system provides agencies with a way to communicate with constituents through automated text and email reminders. Notably, it can also electronically collect required information, forms, and payments ahead of in-person visits, saving additional in-office time and hassle.

Departments even figured out creative, and likely lasting, ways to help residents through major life events. The Washtenaw County, Michigan, Clerk/Register of Vital Records used self-service software to create a virtual marriage license application process, including online document uploads and fee payments, as well as virtual witness appointments. 

Improving Equity

These types of self-service opportunities often result in more equitable communities. New and creative ways to break down barriers and create more accessible government present better steps forward in any context. The Oregon Judicial Department, for example, helps self-represented litigants navigate complex court processes and fill out forms correctly on their own with a web-based platform that simplifies documents into plain-language questions. Similarly, the Los Angeles Superior Court uses a cloud-based online dispute resolution tool to help co-parents create parenting plans without having to hire a lawyer, find childcare, take time off from work, or travel to a courthouse.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services uses a cloud-hosted case management system for its IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) Waiver program serving more than 22,000 seniors and individuals with disabilities. The system provides users with a way to manage their own benefits and direct their healthcare while at home or in another care setting.

Public-facing community engagement tools across the country are allowing residents to make payments, participate in virtual meetings, report non-emergency issues, and request and respond to services in convenient, intuitive, and immediate ways. Public sector leaders can create more and more wins for governments and those they serve by keeping the benefits of self-service and an easy user interface in mind.

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