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Lessons from the Pandemic: 3 Reasons State and Local Governments Must Prioritize Citizen Experience

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people will find new ways to accomplish critical tasks in times of crisis. Such was the situation society faced as a never-before-seen infectious invader, COVID-19, brought the normal day-to-day functions of the world to a screeching halt. However, people still needed to work, receive medical care, buy food, and access a myriad of services, even though exposure to public places carried potentially life-threatening consequences.  

Lessons from the Pandemic: 3 Reasons State and Local Governments Must Prioritize Citizen Experience

Enter digital innovation.

At a rapid pace, employers, retail businesses, and many service providers pivoted to heavy use of digital tools (e.g., telemedicine, online shopping, and remote work connections) to enable citizens to function and get essential services, bringing about years’ worth of change within a much shorter time frame. In fact, a 2020 survey of executives by McKinsey and Company indicated that companies adopted digital or digitally enabled products within one year that otherwise would’ve taken seven years to achieve.

Digital tools are bringing the public sector into the here and now.

While the private sector has always been used to tuning into consumer needs and evolving experiences over time, state and local governments are also refining their processes to focus more on the citizen experience to improve satisfaction amongst residents and efficiency in the delivery of essential messages and project updates.

Recent showings of creativity on this front include:

  • holding court hearings via online video conferencing, 
  • creating web portals for COVID vaccine scheduling, 
  • and ramping up the use of government websites for everything from distributing information to paying a fine.

These digital tools helped public officials maintain services at a pivotal time in our history, offering a glimpse of the digital possibilities for citizen engagement.

However, many government services are still stuck in the analog era.

Despite these exciting modernization efforts, many public services still lag behind the private sector in terms of the citizen experience. Now that the pandemic risk has somewhat subsided, governments need to build on the digital momentum created during the pandemic, rather than go back to business as usual.

By maintaining and adding to these innovations, state and local governments can better reach, inform, and engage their constituents, leading to an improved citizen experience, which is defined as “the interactions between government and citizens across multiple channels that create mutual value.”

If that’s not reason enough to modernize the public sector, below are three more reasons why state and local governments must focus on the citizen experience (if they haven’t already):

1. Internet use is exploding.

Our world finds itself in the midst of a digital transformation, hastened by skyrocketing internet use and the growth of HD streaming, video conferencing, and IoT applications. In 2021, the number of internet users worldwide was an estimated 4.9 billion, up from 4.6 billion in the previous year, according to research firm Statista. And in a recent white paper, Cisco predicts that 66% of the global population will have internet access by 2023, with nearly 30 billion devices/connections by that time. 

In response to this enormous growth, e-government adaptation is advancing worldwide.  However, government sites still lag far behind retail and other economic sectors in online services provided to users, according to industry experts. Common e-government activities include publishing information on government websites, using digital platforms to enable communication between citizens and agencies, and providing online transactional services, such as to pay a bill or submit a form. Globally, the most frequently offered online services include applying for a driver’s license or personal identity card and submitting income taxes.

While that’s a start, the use of modern technologies offers the government sector so much more.

2. Today’s digital tools can help citizens in ways never before possible.

The expanding scope and variety of available tools and technologies over the past 10 to 15 years have been truly extraordinary. Modern technologies deliver fast, intuitive, and comprehensive services in ways that were impossible only a few years ago.

For example, a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, compiling government digital initiatives worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, outlined 500 applications quickly deployed to help citizens. These included:

  • a mobile application created by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that used geopositioning to alert residents to contagion hotspots,
  • a chat-bot interactive computer technology deployed by the Ministry of Health to enable remote quarantine check-ins and health updates for citizens in Kuwait,
  • and a new monitoring system in France that enabled public officials to track hospital capacity over time to better absorb COVID patient demand.

In terms of state initiatives, the State of Rhode Island put technology to important use in the face of unprecedented COVID-fueled job losses. The Virtual Career Center (VCC), which opened in 2020 and is still in use today, was developed by Maven Wave and Google with the State of Rhode Island and other stakeholders to provide an innovative tool for out-of-work residents to find employment. 

Powered by a range of Google Cloud technologies, (i.e., BigQuery, Cloud SQL, Cloud Storage, Cloud Talent API, and Vision API), the center went far beyond the capabilities of traditional job search websites. Suddenly, users had remote access to new skills training, career coaching, and video meeting technology due to the inclusion of Google Workspace and its Google Meet tool. Using this technology, job seekers could quickly and remotely schedule video meetings with career coaches, job recruiters, and potential employers.

Additionally, the Google Job Search API, an AI-driven job discovery tool powered by Google Cloud, allowed job seekers to explore career opportunities best suited to their skills and interests. A Career Matching Bot, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is currently being developed as well. Employing a machine learning algorithm, this groundbreaking tool will deliver personalized recommendations directly to jobseekers and employers.

Tools like the VCC and other worldwide initiatives — reported on by the United Nations (UN) bolstered citizen experience and greatly increased access to critical resources and services at times they were needed most. These pandemic-fueled innovations will likely increase citizen expectations of governments going forward, said LIU Zhenmin, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, in the report forward.  

3. Citizens have come to expect more from their governments.

In their recent report “How to improve citizens’ experience and satisfaction with government services,”  the McKinsey Center for Government conducted a Citizen Satisfaction Survey of approximately 17,000 citizens in 15 states. Among the many findings, the survey confirmed that satisfaction is generally lower for government services than private-sector services. This is not surprising considering that mobile devices now allow consumers to conduct complex business transactions, from making store purchases to doing banking transactions, at the time and place of their choosing.

The ability to complete processes online was respondents’ top priority for improving state services, with the need for shorter wait times at walk-in government centers ranking second. Respondents listed the availability of more and clearer information as their third choice for ways to improve state services, according to the report.

In addition, the survey found that government agencies that proactively share information with citizens promote greater levels of citizen satisfaction. 

The information from these and other sources points to a timely opportunity for governments to identify and implement innovations to better serve and engage their citizens. 

As the UN’s LIU Zhenmin wrote, “It is now our collective responsibility to use digital technologies and solutions as… a means to improving public service delivery; increasing people’s engagement; enhancing transparency, accountability and inclusion; and making life better for all. It is my hope that cases in this [report] will serve as an inspiration to policymakers.”

For more information on citizen experience, check out our most recent webinar: Citizen Experience and Why Public Services Should Care, which includes general information on driving purposeful change and outcomes through citizen experience, as well as more information on the partnership between Maven Wave and the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.

August 10th, 2022

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