Five challenges that keep governments from delivering great digital experiences

Building great digital services is hard

By | 6 minute read | August 1, 2019

Business woman looking at tablet

Only 43% of citizens in the countries that participate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) trust their governments1. In Australia, only 24% of government customers say they would speak positively of interactions with their government 2. Long wait times, poor office experiences, and difficult-to-use technology all contribute to citizens feeling like governments don’t value them or their time 3.

We have to face facts: There’s a global crisis when it comes to public trust in government.

One impact of this lack of trust has been reduced engagement between citizens and their governments. To tackle this problem, governments want to prioritize inclusive, accessible public services — they’re involving citizens in designing those services and they’re promoting digital communication as the default engagement through their own unique digital strategies.

Given this focus, why aren’t high-quality government digital services more widely available?

The answer is simple: Building great digital services is hard.

Although there’s a lot of guidance on what great digital services look like for government, practical help is more difficult to come by. Today’s technology allows prototypes or basic applications to be produced very quickly. But making them real and trustworthy is a bit more complicated, and that complexity has additional costs.

Here are five of the most common issues.

1. Business processes, workflows and rules

Government digital services aren’t just informational pages. They usually require account management, screening for services, online program applications, reporting changes in circumstances, document uploads, notifications and communications, the ability to appeal decisions, and more. Screening and program applications require business rules, and infrastructure is required to manage those rules.

Some agencies may have these capabilities already available in their legacy systems, but if they don’t, they have their work cut out for them. The good news is that because these are common requirements, it’s possible to define generic, configurable versions of these processes and re-use them across multiple digital services.

2. Web-based forms

Manually building guided questionnaire-type web forms for applications and for other information flows is a time-consuming and complex challenge. Configuring and connecting all parts of an application, adding logic and conditionality, managing data flow, and facilitating future updates is no easy task, and it is one that’s often under-estimated in terms of complexity and cost.

A system is required to create well-structured forms based on the principles of human-centered design. However, the creation of such a system isn’t straightforward either, as the United States Digital service acknowledged in its retrospective for the US Forms System project4.  While such systems are commercially available, they should be carefully evaluated against agency requirements.

3. Consistent user-centric design

Having services available online isn’t enough to improve customer experience. When you get beyond obvious things, like “Where do I click next?”, design issues can be subtle and difficult to spot. Even if only one person in 20 struggles with a certain form layout, it becomes a massive issue when tens of thousands of people are using that form.

User-centered design is the way to identify and address these issues. This approach involves using best-practice design patterns along with cycles of user research, prototyping and user testing. For complex applications, the temptation is to take shortcuts and assume that the project team can make design decisions without involving users. After all, the project team knows the business best, right? Maybe, but project teams never really know what works for users until they run tests. This approach is an investment governments must make to succeed.

There are ways this investment can be managed. Each digital service is different and has different user needs, but there are generic patterns and processes that are common across government services that can be re-used so that each project doesn’t have to start from scratch.

4. Non-functional requirements and inclusion

People have high expectations of online experiences, and government services are no different.  People expect digital services to be there when they need them, day or night. They expect to be able to use services easily, even if they have a visual impairment. Most importantly, they expect their data to be safe and protected from unauthorized access.

In addition, agencies providing digital services need them to be maintained. Digital services need to be updated with advances in technology and tooling, security patches and changes to accessibility guidelines. They need to be continually tested, and the user experience must be constantly refined.

In fact, there are several considerations for building an inclusive, secure and maintainable web application. It’s not a given that these software issues will be taken care of. Building for these requirements is challenging, and unless the project is planned well, there can be significant hidden costs.  Governments could reduce those costs by looking for companies that offer update and maintenance services as a part of their product or service offering.

5. Scaling development

In health and human services, no two digital services are the same. Even the same policy might be interpreted differently by two different agencies. As a result, customization is common and all agencies will need to adapt or update existing services, or they will need to create entirely new ones.

Building appealing interfaces that work across devices is relatively easy if you’re working with a good design system. The more time-consuming part is usually writing the code that sits behind those interfaces, especially for integrations and state management. This development process can be repetitive and time consuming, and the costs can increase proportionally to the number of pages or functions required.

However, just as there are similarities in business processes and in design patterns across digital services, there are similarities in the processes needed to deliver those services. If these repetitive processes can be semi-automated, there could be reductions in cost as development scales.

So, where should you go from here?

Build public trust through digital services with IBM Watson Health Citizen Engagement

Government agencies have been using IBM Watson Health solutions to provide online services to their citizens for over 10 years. It’s our mission to support agencies developing high-quality digital services so that individuals are connected to services they need through a personalized, human-centred user experience from any device.

We know a lot about the challenges governments face because we’ve been through them. In partnerships with our customers, we’ve created a unique collection of capabilities to address the most common issues. The result is IBM Watson Health Citizen Engagement, our modern digital services platform for government.

IBM Citizen Engagement provides a configurable, responsive web application made specifically for health and human services, including pre-built business processes for managing citizen interactions with government. It’s supported by a comprehensive set of modern tools, such as a streamlined design system that allows it to be quickly customized and extended. Our Intelligent Evidence Gathering (IEG) forms system, which addresses the technical challenges of form management, is also included. Similar to our Social Program Management products, this system is fully supported, continually enhanced and maintained on an ongoing basis, which gives our customers peace of mind.

Based on our own experience, we estimate that this unique collection of parts allows digital services to be delivered over 10 times faster than other custom alternatives. This approach frees our customers from focusing on the technical mechanics of delivery and allows them to focus on designing better customer experiences – and re-building public trust in government.

Explore IBM Watson Health Citizen Engagement

  1. “Trust in Government,” Organization for Economic and Cooperation Development. Accessed on July 17, 2019.
  2. Pasto, Riccardo, et al. “The Australian Government’s Customer Experience Affects Mission Outcomes.” Forrester, March 29, 2019.
  3. “Mapping the applicant experience of benefit enrollment.” The U.S. Digital Service, October 2016.
  4. “Lessons from the Post Phase 1 Discovery Sprint.” Accessed on July 18, 2019.