The recent Better Public Services report supports the idea that online delivery creates more-for-less government. There are significant savings to taxpayers at stake if high quality, new media content is offered and people choose to use it. Online government can offer more than is possible in other forms as well as the convenience of access any time, anywhere, on any device. People like to be informed online and to level the perceived power imbalance even if they do eventually make human-to-human contact with a government advisor. So more-for-less government through online channels is both possible and strategically important. So how is it going to be done?
No one will be forced to get their government services online. Enthusiastic promotion and search optimisation may get more to try the web-based route but if the experience is poor they probably won't go back. Therefore the online channel must be better than the alternatives of making a call, going to a service centre, writing a letter or any other means. This 'better than' imperative means a focus on end-to-end online channel quality and measurable results.
Such high quality must apply throughout from the awareness that somewhere in government might have an answer, through search and navigation to the possible right place, to introductions or other context confirming the user is in the right place, to delivery and fulfillment and finally a reference to possible related topics of interest - where next. The results focus is about whether users' interactions with government webspace make a meaningful difference in solving their problems. Content alone, even the most potentially useful e-service, is not enough. There are enough stodgy repositories of e-stuff lying unloved around government webspace, creating no value to users whatsoever.
This article outlines strategies for the creation and management of high quality, results-oriented government websites whether standalone or collaborations among several agencies. It is aimed at senior managers responsible for governing online channels on behalf of their agencies. The strategies are based around a model of user experience known as the pyramid of engagement which maps depths of content to audience types.
A generic pyramid of engagement for a mature government website might look like:
Most government websites are missing the layer that steps users from low-involvement, static information to high-involvement services. Involvement in this model represents how much the user has to give of themselves (personal details or a payment) to get something back. This gap of trust (for anyone inexperienced with the providing agency) is bridged by some medium-involvement interactivity - useful utilities, widgets or apps.
While many users of government will happily go directly to an e-service or transaction (maybe because agencies are often monopoly providers), many may not without first establishing a greater sense of comfort or trust with the organisation. Utilities, widgets and apps can fill this role, by providing useful content tailored to the person's situation. They create the impression 'this agency is interested in solving my problems' or 'these guys are on to it'. Government-relevant examples include calculators, what-if simulators, visualisation, mashup maps, advice or funding matching, animated processes, events notifications, etc. If you can hit the sweetspot of being useful, novel and fun they are extremely promotable via social media too.
One end game for government websites is to create a fully personalised account with each user provided access to all transactions and information relevant to that user's situation. A number of local authorities have begun creating My Council accounts to do this. Such one-to-one relationship-building can deepen over time as the organisation learns more about each user and the opportunity to match with tailored content grows. The organisation would usually start these with key stakeholder groups and expand from there.
The other primary end game for government webspace is to cut or copy the audience slices from your pyramid and integrate them with other organisation's slices serving the same audience. The resulting webspaces can provide comprehensive coverage of 'all' content relevant to them in a true one-stop shop fashion. These are not just directory sites but consistent content within a single complete context. From there gaps and overlays can be removed, processes can be integrated or re-engineered and personalisation added if needed. Centred on problem-solving these sites can be incredibly powerful and do things never before achieved in government.
The new governance and financial models proposed in the Better Public Services report should help streamline development of cross-agency and private hybrid initiatives. These integrated service clusters are technically easy to create but fall apart in their design when agency agendas or rivalries dominate rather than the needs of the user group. It is apparent that independent facilitators are critical to broker clean designs which serve users best.
The relevance of social media to government is a lot broader than the personal profile and conversational sites like the Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus. These sites can offer useful promotion of interesting web features, feedback on the organisation and related issues but are unlikely to be a platform for quality consultation.
New dedicated e-consultation platforms are emerging that interleave the proposed policy material with the conversation and add interactive visualisation to show the effects and implications of proposals in individual circumstances. This will bring consultation alive and break through the barriers of participation.
Other dimensions of social media are in crowd-sourcing and mass collaboration. The art here is to recognise potential purposes that are interesting enough to encourage participation by lay public or specialists and experts. The role of social catalyst will be required to help agencies spot the low-hanging fruit of these innovative possibilities so that when they work well produce near free contributions of content for all. The main challenge for government is to see the value of porous boundaries and open participation. There will always be more expertise outside any organisation than inside - how to access it is the trick.
Mass uptake of smartphones, tablets and laptops and the availability of cheaper wireless connectivity mean government needs to respond with content useful when people are out and about. As standard practice, agencies should be making their webspaces mobile-usable with HTML 5 compatible web publishing and adaptive design. They also need to select the new location-specific and/or time-specific content that is most useful to their stakeholders. Some fantastic possibilities are coming in virtual guides and augmented reality overlays on real scenes with re-created historical sites or proposed developments. Government being innovative means when people are saying 'there is an app for that' they are also including the public sphere.
There are a lot of government web presences that are totally unable to prove their value because they have never counted their visit numbers let alone compared these with the other channels that provide the same enquiry or transaction. Usage reporting or analytics can show the paths users take through the site, the points at which they drop out (go elsewhere) and the proportions that are taking desired actions or reaching a point of conclusion.
In order to demonstrate the extent of channel-shifting there must be clear information about current volumes of enquiry and transaction types by channel, the costs of these per interaction and monitoring over time to show the effects of online development, management and governance. A good financial planner or cost accountant is invaluable to the online channel manager to proving the heavy-lifting the online channel is doing.
Quality of online delivery can be a difficult one to measure, especially for government which does not deal in bottom lines but in a mixture of quantifiable and qualitative desired outcomes. Still, anything not measured cannot be managed. On the assumption there is no perfect web presence, what can web teams do to get over subjective self-judgment of their outputs?
Most take a multi-pronged approach. Often, analytics or usage reporting is assessed against expectations and the potential audience especially over time. But this can tell you little about specific weaknesses or gaps against contemporary practice. Next most common is user testing, or watching real users try to achieve objectives on your site and seeing where they slow down or stop. This can also be paired with focus group sessions with sample users to solicit potential improvements or enhancements. These can be useful, particularly for critiquing or optimizing what is there already but users find it notoriously difficult to suggest new functionality or even content.
The last practice and becoming more common is independent expert assessment; still subjective but fine-grained evaluation against elements of best practices and web standards and commenting on gaps. This approach often includes benchmarking and ranking against peer websites. The ALGIM web awards assessment and e-Gov Watch are examples. All three methods are useful to counter-balance strengths and weaknesses.
Many government online operations are ridiculously understaffed. In some cases you have all-of-organisation online channels representing $100 million organisations and thousands of content items to diverse and complex audiences with one or less full-time staffer. Budget squeezes are no excuse; in fact financial hardship is the best time to invest in these more-for-less channels as confirmed by the Better Public Services report.
Innovation and channel-shifting cannot occur without the online channel manager having sufficient time available to help operational managers solve their audience interaction problems in a meaningful way, all the while managing the overall user experience. All too often the website manager (or even worse a web master or web editor) is doing the grunt-work of content publishing with little time for advocacy and coherency. Support these people with content editing help, good content management systems, application development support and an operational budget that reflects the contribution the online channel can make.
So in summary, this article advocates a 'build it better and they will come (and keep coming)' approach. Provide content in context. Once you have a great destination drop out rates will be lower and promotion will be much more effective if it is even needed. Word of mouse may be enough. You will see your users establishing habit loops from satisfying one need and having a high expectation of fulfilling the next. Viral and useful government, anyone? Could this be closer to the essence of the innovative government now desired?
Shane Middlemiss Director, e-Gov Watch Ltd 027 248 9406 email@example.com