Part 6: Using technology to provide information and services

Reflecting on our work about information.

Information life cycle.

The world is undergoing a digital transformation that is changing the way people live their lives. Products and services are now designed so that technology is seamlessly integrated into our lives, and people are doing more and more everyday tasks online.

Whether it is booking a holiday, buying movie tickets, or banking on the go, people now expect the speed and convenience that online services provide. Those expectations are not limited to services provided by the private sector. The challenge for public organisations is to provide the same level of easy and seamless online services.

Traditionally, public services have been provided by single agencies thinking only about the services they are responsible for providing. This often required people to interact with several agencies to obtain information about, or apply for, government-provided services. This also led to the creation of individual IT systems and design models that do not integrate well with each other when public organisations try to collaborate.

Providing digital services is not just about improving IT systems or publicly facing websites. Public organisations are increasingly required to work together to design and deliver services with a clear customer focus, so that people can interact with the public sector more easily.

A system-level strategic approach is essential

In Part 3, we discussed the functional leadership roles of the Government Chief Data Steward and the Government Chief Digital Officer.

Strong support and guidance from the functional leaders is needed as the public sector moves to a digital-by-design approach to providing information and services to people. The Government Chief Digital Officer is, in particular, responsible for "ICT-enabled transformation across government agencies".

In our article Data leadership, we noted the importance of this system-level leadership in achieving such a transformation – enabling people to access services when and where they need them, involving them in policy decisions that affect them, and building trust in the public sector.

Providing digital information and services is challenging

Meeting expectations about making public services and information available digitally is not an easy task. In our 2018 report Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples, we noted that the complexities and challenges of doing so need to be well understood and managed. The examples we looked at showed that it is easy to underestimate the time and work required.

We also noted the importance of understanding and keeping up with emerging technologies and customer expectations. Public organisations need to keep thinking about how changes can affect how they run their business and the way that they manage information, business processes, organisational culture, and behaviour as a result.

Collaboration is essential

Internationally, governments are shifting from working in traditional agency "silos" to providing digital services to the public that are designed and delivered around a customer's life events and needs.

Here in New Zealand, the first such "life event" service created was SmartStart – an online tool for people who are about to have a baby. The four government departments involved14 worked collaboratively to provide parents and caregivers with online access to government information and support during a pregnancy and for the first six months of a baby's life. SmartStart also allows users to register the birth of their baby, apply for an IRD number, and update their benefit details.

Work has begun to design similar services for people who are transitioning to tertiary education; a victim of or witness to crime; reaching retirement age (turning 65); or preparing for bereavement.

As part of our research on how public organisations use data, we talked to several public organisations about the challenges of sharing data. Some of the challenges we were told about included:

  • different organisations having different levels of data maturity;
  • agreeing the right approach – what should be shared, how best to do it, and who should carry the cost; and
  • using a common set of standards for data.

We also looked more closely at some case studies, including SmartStart and Te Hokinga ā Wairua – an end-of-life service. In our article Sharing data, we noted that several factors enabled the agencies involved to collaborate successfully in designing and delivering the respective services. These included:

  • cross-agency project governance structures and sponsorship at the executive level of each agency;
  • a clear shared project vision and outcomes;
  • a project team with the right capabilities and disciplines involved (including data analytics, researchers, story-tellers, IT architects, legal advisers, and privacy experts);
  • not governing the projects as "IT projects";
  • established principles about using and managing data;
  • a clear understanding about financial commitment from each agency; and
  • designing the services with privacy considerations at the centre (see also Part 5).

Customer feedback is important

Providing services digitally is not just about technology. It is about putting the customer at the centre of the design and delivery of the service. In several of our reports, we have encouraged public organisations to use information obtained through customer complaints or feedback processes to improve the way they provide services. This is particularly important when providing services online.

As part of our work on the Information theme, we carried out an online forum and group discussion with people from all walks of life who shared their experiences in obtaining information from, or providing information to, the public sector.

Many of the participants commented on the importance of customer service, with one participant noting that:

It seems that, all too often, these organisations are so obsessed with their own objectives that they don't think about how the end user interacts with the service. It's not just about putting text on a page, or merely having a call centre, but having services that make people feel safe, confident, and able to access information. By thinking about how end users feel, rather than [key performance indicators], I feel like these services would be more useful and garner better results.

Digital services must be accessible and of a good standard

When providing access to information or services online, it is essential that websites are usable and accessible for all people, including senior citizens, those with disabilities, and those from other cultures.

In our 2018 report Digital access to information and services, we looked at three online services and assessed the agencies' relevant websites or apps against the Government's web standards for usability and accessibility.15 Although the websites we looked at mostly complied with the relevant standards, even the smallest issues can affect users with poor eyesight, not using a mouse, or using screen readers or text-to-speech browsers.

Public organisations should carry out regular usability and accessibility reviews of their websites or mobile apps to ensure that as many people as possible can access information and services.

Assessing the benefits realised through technology projects

In our 2012 report Realising benefits from six public sector technology projects, we outlined the elements of good practice for delivering IT projects. These elements included:

  • understanding the environment and making the most of circumstances;
  • using a business-led, flexible, and agile approach;
  • having strong support from leaders and senior managers;
  • working effectively with the right people, including end-users;
  • using the right technology tools; and
  • monitoring and understanding the benefits.

Some of these elements are covered in our discussion on the success factors of SmartStart and Te Hokinga ā Wairua. In some of our other recent work, we have emphasised the importance of monitoring and measuring benefits. For example, in our 2017 report Ministry of Health: Supporting the implementation of patient portals, we noted that systematic monitoring of the benefits of patient portals would enable the Ministry of Health to:

  • form a clearer picture of the benefits achieved;
  • understand problems or barriers experienced by users; and
  • make improvements as a result.
Questions to consider
Do you assess your online services and information to ensure that they are usable and accessible?
As you move to providing services and information online, do you measure benefits and make improvements as a result?

14: The Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Social Development, the Inland Revenue Department, and the Ministry of Health.

15: The services were the National Library's digitisation of records, Quotable Value Limited's home buyers' property information, and Greater Wellington Regional Council's real-time travel information.