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Article 5 min read

Why it's time for the public sector to join the digital fast lane

By Lilia Krauser, Staff Writer

Last updated December 14, 2022

Whether we like it or not, recent events have catapulted us into the digital world. Three years ago, life was already moving steadily online but when the pandemic came along, that transition accelerated virtually overnight. Nowadays, food can be ordered via app and delivered a few minutes later. Shoppers can buy from stores on social media. And video calls with loved ones are almost as regular an occurrence as meeting up in person.

Yet in the public sector, the digital experience is far less instant and pervasive. The use of paper documents remains commonplace, as does waiting on hold for ages to speak to a customer service agent, and employees often struggle to connect customer data across different departments.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Advances in both digital technologies and customer experience platforms mean it has never been easier for public sector organisations to build online experiences into their day-to-day operations. And, in doing so, they can set themselves up to deliver the agile and seamless interactions demanded by both the people they serve and those they employ.

Pressures to digitalise are rising

There are additional pressures on local governments to digitalise services, compounded by the need to find savings without reducing the quality and output of the services they provide. Delivering those services online where appropriate can balance these seemingly conflicting needs.

Pressure is also coming from new policies and legislation. For instance, the European Commission has proposed the 2030 Policy Programme a Path to the Digital Decade, which the European Union is expected to achieve in the next ten years. The programme’s targets are based on digital skills, digital infrastructures, and the digitalisation of businesses and public services.

Germany has already stepped up here with its Online Access Act (OZG), which plans to upgrade and standardise digital solutions for public administration. This is no mean feat as the country’s government consists of 16 federal states and 11,000 local governments, all of which need to work together to create a unified digital solution. But it will be worth it. The outcome of the OZG is that each citizen will have a single digital account through which they can easily access all federal, state, and local services.

Much to gain from government digitalisation

Germany’s experience underlines the fact that although the challenges of digitalising are certainly great, the rewards can be even greater.

Estonia is another example. For the last 20 years, the country has been on a path to digitalise government services. And according to e-Estonia, the name given to the country’s digital society and infrastructure, the resulting efficiencies have enabled each citizen to save an average of five working days a year through being able to access and sign documents digitally.

These kinds of agile and streamlined digital services have other benefits too. According to Forrester’s Customer Experience (CX) Index, when CX improves, customers are more likely to comply with instructions, trust organisations, and forgive mistakes. Likewise, government operations run more smoothly and cost effectively and people’s faith in the country rises.

More with less: Improving customer experience through smart digitalisation

While digitalisation involves replacing a patchwork of rigid, outdated systems with smart technologies and tools, the focus is not just on the technology itself. Rather, it is on how technology can improve customer experiences. For instance, implementing chatbots on websites to answer frequently asked questions makes it easier for people to self-serve and get to a resolution more quickly.

Digitisation also improves the employee experience as workers discover they are able to do “more with less”. Documents can be processed faster while automation picks up the strain of answering some customer queries. This leaves staff free to focus on more value-added tasks, improving their experience while also boosting cost-effectiveness and innovation for the organisation as a whole.

How digitalisation supports the public sector’s goals

Most public sector services accept it’s no longer a case of when they digitalise their services but how quickly. The digital arm of the UK’s national health service, NHS Digital, for example, is aware of how digital transformation can help improve the way it cares for citizens. They have used Zendesk to scale their customer service to support the development and usability of the NHS app.

In 2019, it published the NHS Long Term Plan, which sets out the critical priorities that will support its digital transformation. Through services like the NHS app, online appointment booking and digital medical records, the aim is to provide proactive, personalised, and easy-to-use services that respond to people’s choices, pre-empt their needs, and, ultimately, deliver better outcomes for patients nationwide.

While the NHS’s journey continues, one government agency that is already benefiting from embracing a unified and simplified customer experience platform is the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). It is part of the Department for Education and is accountable for £65 billion of funding for training and education across academy trusts, local authorities, sixth-form colleges, and training providers.

ESFA realised that the number of employers using its services was expected to grow from 30,000 to 180,000 over the coming years. This meant it needed to transform its service model in order to support all these extra customers. ESFA’s response to this challenge has been highly successful. By increasing the number of available digital channels, offering automated self-service solutions, and enabling agents to gain a single, unified customer view, the organisation is not only effectively meeting the needs of its increased user base, it’s also continually improving the experience offered to the people it serves.

As daily life continues to move online, the appetite for digital transformation has never been greater. Today’s customers expect solutions that deliver ease, agility, and convenience every time they interact with any business or organisation.

By acting now and adopting the right digital technologies and customer service platforms, public sector organisations can put themselves in a position to deliver the streamlined, personalised experiences that their citizens and employees demand. The need to digitalise for tomorrow is non-negotiable. How they go about doing so is a choice they need to make today.

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