Best Practice
Website Assessments
      About Us | Services | Evaluation Criteria | Contact Us

Integrated Service Clusters:
A Way Through Audience Complexity


The 2009 e-Government Integration Situation

The New Zealand E-Government Strategy [1] states the 2007 to 2010 period is to be about the Transformation of Government which will provide "user-centred information and services and achieve joint outcomes". This goal is supported by the earlier Review of the Centre policy of 2002 that had the first of three priority areas for change "achieving better integrated, citizen focused, service delivery". It included desirable qualities like "seamless" and "responsive, adaptive systems". The tools and capabilities of the Internet have made it increasingly easy to realize these ambitions.

So where are we now? E-Gov Watch is a company specializing in assessing government websites against best practices criteria including the Government Web Standards and Recommendations. The chart in Appendix 1 shows the best, worst and averages performance for all NZ government sites against the nine relevant best practice criteria areas. This shows Cross-Organisation Integration (or how well each site interrelates with sites from other government and non-government organisations) fares very poorly in government sites to date. The median is only a score of 15.1 out of 100. Our government sites are not currently playing well with others and are typically worlds in isolation when it comes to users dealing with them. The silo mentality is still strongly in place.

What is the Consequence of Non-Integrated Approaches?

Users don't know necessarily know government that well so they may not know which agency to contact (some evidence suggests around 30% calls to government are misdirected [2]). Users may not know what government calls the thing they want so searching may not work that well using the usual Google or the government portal ("newzealand.govt.nz").

Even users who do know which agencies to contact are obliged to go to the site's search or browse through hundreds of irrelevant options to find the information or service they want, then back to a search engine, to look for the next agency they need at which time they are confronted by a completely different navigation structure, writing style and look and feel. They are possibly entering the same information into forms that other agencies have already asked for. For some users they need to deal with half a dozen agencies or more to fulfill requirements each with its own need to learn and navigate the site taking up time and causing frustration.

Even with the trend toward creating topic-specific government directory sites the user is still required to move between differing site styles to complete a complex series of needs with high likelihood of confusion if not bale out and resign to a traditional phone or counter queue.

It is a repository approach to information and service delivery that has the assumption that if we as an agency just publish our content into an often huge navigation structure that is enough. The users will work it out.

This is messy, confusing, arrogant and mostly - USERS DON'T WORK IT OUT. They miss things they should know. They are not getting a chance to make the most of this new revolutionary medium.

What is the missing element? In this paper is proposed a model named Integrated Service Clusters.

What are Integrated Service Clusters (ISCs)?

ISCs are neutral online platforms designed for a target audience that apply a common look and feel and data model to multiple agencies' resources and that work well as a whole.

Breaking that down, Integrated Services Clusters involve:

  • neutral online platforms - not dominated by one (typically the largest agency in a cluster), an open framework into which all relevant content is placed in appropriate locations
  • designed for a target audience - not designed for agency needs but to service customers, clients or stakeholders, typically a user role, e.g. building owners, potential immigrants, school teachers, etc. Content is consistently written (or rewritten) and presented for the users. The users' needs are used to prioritise content of relevance to them (not agency priorities).
  • apply a common look and feel and data model - not just a directory of resources but a unified collection of content resources that work well together
  • multiple agencies' resources - comprehensive set of resources for the audience from all agencies having content of relevance
  • work well as a whole - single navigation structure, highly usable, potential for integrated personalisation for each user

What do ISCs look like?

The fully developed service clusters are still rare and hard to find at present. However, there are ISC-like projects that are useful to look at in NZ and world-wide. Some related examples;

NZ Government Sites

Comments

NZLive - the culture portal

Useful listings but no direct fulfillment (booking), no maps to venues, personalisation is cumbersome and only allows saving of resources not interest-based searching

PureNZ / NewZealand.com - the travel portal

Useful features - good searching, maps, travel planner but sparse listings, no direct fulfillment

Business.govt.nz - business information zone

Big repository including reskinned content but little interactivity and little personalisation, new business.govt.nz site coming soon

ConsumerBuild - Department of Building & Housing & Consumer's Institute joint venture

Process-oriented but not interactive, no personalisation

Te Kete Ipurangi - Online Learning Centre

Facilitated topic areas and oriented to teachers role but poor usability and social network features

NZ Government Jobs Online

Clear jobs search with interactivity needed - let me know when jobs come up fitting my needs

World-wide Government Sites

Comments

Business Link - UK

Questionnaires match with advice from relevant agencies

eCitizen - Singapore

Email and SMS alerts for a wide range of government services, My eCitizen

Non-residents portal - Singapore

All transactions available from single location (although in separate websites)

MyPage - Norway

Personal portal customizable with services across 6 government agencies and 23 municipalities

It can be easier to see what they are not. One common approach in government is the creation of directories which are really just a collection of links to multiple sites each with its own navigation structure, writing style and interactive elements. Many examples exist here in New Zealand government including Law Access, Tertiary Education training & courses directory, FamilyWeb, etc. Typically directories are relatively easy to build but with the often shallow integration employed do not add much value for the user.

So what kinds of capabilities are needed?

Possible Design Features for ISCs

  • Multi-agency single dashboard - personalised with most relevant notices, services and information that matches each user's profile
  • Multi-agency integrated processes - ability to enter information only once and have it made available (with permission) to all authorized agencies
  • Status or event notification - alerts when certain conditions are met or events of relevance are occurring, e.g. if balance of account is lower that required or if river levels in your area are high
  • Reviews and ratings of resources - using user, expert and practitioner networks to rate and review resources
  • Discussion and chat - once you have stakeholders coming together allow them to talk among themselves and even encourage officials to participate
  • E-Consultation - ISCs are a perfect place to canvas views on issues affecting the cluster audiences(s)

Content Aggregation Approaches

There is probably no one best means to integrate content from disparate sources since each content type will have differing degree of automation and agency ownership. The range of methods includes;

  • Syndication of textual content, e.g. news, events, static content from their current sites
  • Distributed content management systems - agency updates of 'their' more dynamic informational content
  • Common style guides for information and services
  • Collaborative data models for services using e-GIF interoperability standards

A key question here is the degree of advocacy for a common style and tone that is suited to the audience concerned. An easy way is to just reskin relevant content in the same style as that of the parent organisation. However, if the styles used by contributing organisations are inconsistent or unsuited to the audience's preferences the approach is less effective.

What are the Benefits of ISCs?

Benefits to Users

  • Perception of greater access to resources
  • Reliability that all obligations and entitlements are available in one place
  • Making it easy to deal with government
  • Bridges gaps between responsibilities, including between central, regional and local government
  • Saves time and money for end-users
  • Meets stakeholders halfway for compliance or advocacy
  • Improves perceptions of government

Benefits to Agencies & Government

  • Improves potential for client compliance
  • Improves reception of public good advocacy and advice (alcohol use, exercise, speed, safety, diet, etc)
  • Provides unique usage research about how agency content is used in a wider context
  • Increases usage of low cost delivery channel (versus higher cost phone, mail and regional centres)
  • Better depth of feedback and collaboration
  • Creates underpinning system for other cross-agency service delivery channels, e.g. 0800, regional service centres, mobile advisors

Where are they Needed?

Wherever stakeholders deal with complexity in interacting with government especially those involving transaction with multiple agencies.

Some Examples of Potential Government Integrated Service Clusters in NZ Government:

  • Resource Consents Applicants - stepping users through each step of the relevant application process, allowing saving at any stage, calculation & estimation tools, resource directories
  • Teachers - similar scope to the existing Te Kete Ipurangi but greater personalisation, more comprehensive resources adding classroom management strategies and resource rating by practitioners
  • Statutory Board Nominees & Members - nomination application process, skills assessment and e-learning
  • Community Organisers - broad range of community organisation management tools, grants funding, online bookkeeping, member communication, project / meeting co-ordination
  • Parents - personalisation using kids' ages, interests and special needs, one site for all government agencies' resources
  • People interested in their Health - health advice in everyday language matches to interest and personal health file
  • Business Owners - all transactions with government tailored to size, stage, industry, region
  • Legal Defendants - court hearing process, legal aid application, legal document templates
  • People wanting Work and Training - combined resources for job-seeking, career advice and training
  • Home Owners - personalised to match resource consents, sustainability advice, building and renovation advice, valuations

What Stops them from Happening?

There appear to be a range of factors inhibiting these kinds of cross-agency sites from being developed.

Limitation Factor

How to Address Limitation

Agencies are not directly tasked with integrated service delivery

Appeal to Review of the Centre and e-Government policies, tweak output / service performance statements

Public Finance Act limits - limited financial models for cross-agency ownership

Develop ISCs as ASPs, cross-government consortia

Differing agency timelines

Set a medium-term cross-agency timeline that agencies can agree and work to

Inflexible legacy systems

Adapt / change them to become real-time and e-GIF compliant

Lead agency takeover

Independent facilitation, agreement from all CEs to agreed joint solution

Too complex / new / novel

Learn user needs at depth, test the proposition with users

Cultural inertia

Support with CE agreements and Ministerial / Mayoral engagement

Limited experience with interoperability

Learn about it as you go, rapid iterative prototyping

No trigger / vision

Read this paper

No business case

Create one focused upon both financial and non-financial benefits

How can they be Created Effectively?

An ISC development process is pretty standard one for complex online projects but places emphasis on achieving high-level agreement to sustain agency involvement.

  1. Early Visioning
  • Initial idea conceived
  • Initial funding secured
  • Facilitator appointed
  • Identify agencies of relevance
  • Initial cross-agency meetings
  • Statement of intention written
  • CE letter of agreement to explore
  1. Feasibility Assessment
  • Services and information inventory
  • Iterative site mockups development
  • User research
  • System specification
  • Assessment of content critical mass
  • Timeline collaboration and phasing
  • Business case development
  • Cross-agency funding approach
  • CE letter of agreement to develop to agreed milestones
  1. Systems Development
  • Data model development
  • Systems architecture development
  • Home page and templates design
  • Web Standards compliance planning
  • E-services development
  • Content management configuration
  • Content acquisition and editing
  • Site management specification
  • Usability testing
  • Agency service level agreements negotiated
  • Site service charter developed
  1. Operational Development
  • Promotion and marketing planning
  • System support and enhancement planning
  • Performance monitoring
  • Government & strategic planning development

There is plenty of challenging work here; perhaps the most difficult is securing agency agreement to the vision and the agency content timelines that will allow a feasible initial site to work. Key process requirements are to demonstrate the vision clearly, show each agency's part in the big picture and how the whole will work for the users targeted. Two critical ways to bring these requirements to fruition are skilled facilitators, ideally independent of agency interests but knowledgeable about online capabilities and mocked up screen shots of the system that are rapidly changed as users' feedback become apparent.

The other main requirement will be personal championship by passionate agency managers who are willing to appreciate the broader context of user needs rather than just their own agency interactions.

The holding together of the centres of these projects to retain highly user-centric solutions as well as agency commitment to the timelines is tough and further support may be useful.

Central Support Options

It seems somewhat inevitable that Integrated Service Clusters will come into being sooner or later. If it is later, then unfortunately users will miss out on some significant opportunities and agencies may find it harder to integrate after stand-alone solutions are developed in isolation. The longer agencies set their own course, the greater these costs will be. However, it may well go against the grain for agencies to come together spontaneously.

Some help from the centre may be useful in oiling the wheels of change. To help get a government-wide push in this direction, we could really use State Services Commission, Government Technology Services (DIA) and Local Government Commission facilitation, to

  1. Inventory all government services and information by audience
  2. Create an ISC development process and facilitation toolkit
  3. Provide project management and collaboration site templates
  4. Find and accredit independent ISC facilitators
  5. Develop a generic governance and reporting approach for audience channel direction
  6. Create models for cross-agency financing and incentives

The Challenge to Agencies

Whether supported from the centre or not, agencies and local authorities have a historic opportunity to transcend their borders and embrace the worldviews of their stakeholder users. I encourage all from within government to collaborate with your peers in other organisations sharing common audiences and together design the integrated channels that will truly make a difference to users. Integrated service clusters are a way through user complexity and will make the Web an effective channel of engagement with key stakeholders.




Please send any comments or feedback to:

shane@e-govwatch.org.nz

Shane Middlemiss
Director
e-Gov Watch Ltd




Appendix 1: Poor Performance of Cross-Organisation Integration in Government Websites

Chart showing poor performance of cross-organisation integration in governemnt websites

 



[1] State Services Commission, http://www.e.govt.nz/about-egovt/strategy

[2] Department of Internal Affairs' Government within Reach project based upon a Telecom survey from the mid 1990s

 

© 2009 e-Gov Watch Ltd