By Arnaud De La Chapelle, VFS Global. 

Customers today expect their needs will be met in a fast, frictionless manner.The likes of tech leaders such the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) are showing the way, competing to deliver faster, cheaper and more user-friendly services – on-demand, anywhere, anytime – which means that in this customer-centric, connected world, the bar has never been set higher. Customers now expect the same sort of service in their interactions with the public sector too.

Recognising this need, governments are actively assessing how they can reform existing citizen services, while staying within budget controls. For example, currently, public services regularly require manual forms that have to be printed and mailed, rather than offer an end-to-end online experience where it is possible to do so, including for payments. The same goes for working hours at public offices which are often limited, with customers having to visit personally for every requirement.

Just like in the private sector, citizens are increasingly demanding more user-friendly services in the government sector too. A report by the McKinsey Center for Government, for example, which surveyed 17,000 US citizens looking at their experience with state service points in the US, found that satisfaction with private sector services was two and a half times higher than that for public services. Participants expressed negative feelings about the complexity of processes, the slow speed of service, and the effort required to navigate through processes. Those surveyed said they cared most about speed, simplicity, and efficiency – key elements of the interaction “process” with government – over all other aspects of their service experience.

This is not the best case scenario for the public sector. Delivering services to citizens is central to what governments, and their agencies, do. The most palpable interactions people have with their governments are for duties such as paying tax, renewing driving licenses, or applying for benefits. High quality services are therefore vital in engendering trust in the public sector.

The problem is that governments generally think about what they want from a service and how best to make it work for their processes, rather than what their customers are looking for and what they find easiest. As the McKinsey report outlined, government agencies tend to focus on individual ‘touchpoints’ in their interactions with citizens (for example, accepting an application), rather than considering a citizen’s end-to-end journey through a process (such as obtaining a license). The report found that those agencies that managed the entire end-to-end journey achieved higher levels of customer satisfaction. They also developed more effective ways to collaborate internally across functions and levels to deliver their services.

Indeed, a good starting point for governments is to think of the basic premise that it all starts with customers’ identity. Enabling individuals to create identity will enhance the opportunities at a later stage to realise cross-collaboration across different functions.

I recently spoke at the fifth annual International e-Governance Conference, held in Estonia. The setting could not have been more appropriate, given the huge strides that the Estonian government has made in citizen services. Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7 – in fact, the only things where e-services are not in place are for marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions.

But the Estonian thought process was not to go ‘digital for digital’s sake’ – another trap governments often fall into. Estonia first introduced an e-tax declaration, offering a better way of doing taxes that the citizen was keen to adopt, rather than government.

Now, its citizen services have expanded to the point where Estonians can vote via their laptops. They can appeal against parking tickets online. Rather than people having to input data time and time again, it follows a ‘once and once-only’ policy; if they’re applying for a loan, for example, information is obtained from elsewhere in the system. They don’t have to fill out forms at the surgery as doctors can access patient records online.

Health data held online can often frighten the horses. The key to a good identity – and crucial to engendering trust among citizens – is a robust database with security safeguards. For Estonia, a central principle is that the individual is the owner of their own information and the country doesn’t hold any data centrally – instead, its ‘X-Road’ system connects individual servers through encrypted pathways, storing information locally (again, that key point of thinking about cross-collaboration). A medical practice will hold its own data, as will a tax office.  When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered by a process that has been described as via a series of locks on a canal. Even a record that’s accessible to medical specialists can be restricted from other doctors’ view if that person doesn’t want it seen. And every time a state employee looks at a person’s secure data, it is recorded online, as accessing data for no reason is a criminal offence.

As Arthur Mickoleit, an analyst at Gartner who specializes in digital government, has pointed out, Estonia got the foundations right early in the process. This included digitising registers held by public bodies to provide the necessary information to support e-services, building the X-Road platform, andgiving citizens the means to securely access online services by providing digital ID cards and making digital signatures equivalent to handwritten signatures.

As a result, Estonia has reached an unprecedented level of transparency in governance and built broad trust in its digital society, saving over 1,400 years of working time annually.

It’s also vital to realise that ‘online only’ and going digital for digital’s sake does not necessarily work for everyone, such as older citizens, those with disabilities, or those with poor internet connectivity.

That’s why in Oman, the Ministry of Regional Municipalities introduced the ‘Injaz Hall’ (injaz means achievement in Arabic), a one-stop-shop for municipal services, housing all such services across 44 regions under one roof. Applications and approval processes (for car licences, shop licences, building permits and more) were streamlined and standardized. Since implementation, the average approval for each application has been reduced from 30 working days to 5 working days (a circa 83% reduction in processing time). Furthermore, the revenue collected from municipal services also increased dramatically: at the end of July 2012, the collected amount was about 7 million OMR (US$18 million), about 15 times the amount collected in 2008. Because of these achievements, Injaz Hall received the global UN Public Service Award for improving the delivery of public services.

At VFS Global, we have been managing similar high-volume large-scale identity and citizen programmes for governments of South Africa, India, the United Arab Emirates, and several African countries. Programmes include in-country passport services, foreigner registration, driving licenses, birth certificates, a range of civic permits, licenses and registrations, across a range of one-stop-shop, front office, digital and door-to-door services.

We recently worked with the Delhi government on its ‘home delivery of public services’ scheme,believed to be the first time a government has launched such a programme. Under the scheme, Delhiites can register or apply for 40 services — including learners and permanent driving licences, transfer of ownership of vehicle and change in address, new water connections, new ration cards and their disabled pension, among others — without standing in long queues at government offices. Citizens are able to contact a call centre number, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to enquire about what documents they need to register for a service. A facilitator then visits the person’s home (between 9am and 9pm seven days a week) to help fill in application forms and take any biometric data. The application is then transferred electronically to the relevant department. Launching the scheme, the government compared it to as easy as ordering a pizza. The scheme also serves the needs of those less mobile or able to use online channels as easily, such as the elderly or disabled.

In the UAE, on behalf of the Ministry of Health and Prevention, VFS Global has set up and manages Medical Examination Centers for Residency Visa purposes in Dubai.In

February and April of 2018, two state-of- the-art Medical Examination Centres were launched enabling resident expatriates to complete their mandatory health checks for their residency visas. The centres deliver seamless medical testing services for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and deliver test reports in 48 hours turnaround time with the option of receiving test results via email or SMS. Customers are also provided with professional call centre and email support and a dedicated information website for end-to- end details on fees, services and booking an appointment.

Indeed, one-stop-shops combining the best of online delivery such as multichannel options together with in-person contact tend to be the most successful, as a report for the World Bankfound. It reported that, although there are different models of these kinds of one-stop-shops adopted worldwide, the best include four common features: access, personalization, speed, and interaction. Increasing access means supplementing brick-and-mortar centres with electronic and mobile services; personalization refers to providing information based on citizen’s interests and needs; speed concerns reducing transaction times and involves re-engineering and simplifying processes and procedures; while interaction refers to engaging citizens, from receiving feedback from citizens to engaging them as co-creators of one-stop-shops.

Governments that leverage this customer service mindset, offer multiple channels of service delivery and focus on service quality are most likely to achieve this – exactly the sort of mindset employed by the tech leaders that have set that bar where it is today.

Arnaud De La Chapelle is Head of Identity & Citizen Services at VFS Global and member of the Executive Board at VFS Global, the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide, and trusted partner to 63 client governments in 147 countries.

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