Leveraging Technology to Improve Public Services
New Zealand is a modern western, democracy and active member of the international community. Our public services face many technology challenges. Of these some are the same as private sector organisations (e.g., legacy technology, short term investment cycles, disruptive new technologies).
In many countries public services are fractured and siloed between and within agencies. This contributes to a poor user experience, lack of innovation for economic or social gain, and to mistrust in government.
There is growing tension between calls to makegovernment data and processes available for economic gain against the need to protectcitizen privacy. Companies and NGOs see opportunities to use government data, which can include personal information, as a basis upon which to innovate new services for their customers. However, many countries have privacy laws that restrict the use of personal information to the purposes it was gathered for. Over and above this governments have a responsibility to protect citizen privacy.
"Public sector technologists can work to create a digital ecosystem that enables Government as a Platform."
Increasingly citizens tend to view government as one entity despite it being composed of many agencies. Many citizens express frustration at having to navigate and integrate disparate public services and expect government to be more ‘joined up’. The impact of this cannot be understated. One report in New Zealand showed that some families in poverty interacted with more than a dozen agencies in an average week, often having to provide the same information each time. This becomes a burden on families, potentially locking them into poverty cycles.
In addition, some government services are developed for the benefit of the society at large rather than the individual citizen, for example law enforcement. This can contribute to another increasing challenge faced by public sector agencies. A lack of trust in government and the delivery of public services.
The covid pandemic has shone a light on how misinformation can breed mistrust in governments and the services they provide. This is a growing problem for governments that is complex and difficult to solve.
However, there is an emerging digital opportunity for public digital technologists globally to exploit.While digital technologies cannot fully address these challenges, they can serve as an enabler. They can deliver a more seamless, transparent digital experience for citizens that can also unlock government data and processes for economic innovation.
Government as a Platform
Public sector technologists can work to create a digital ecosystem that enables Government as a Platform. Sufficiently authorised people and organisationscan use this platform to curate their experience and innovate to create new services.
Flexible APIs, B2B and B2C identity services, security management, service management, and clear data models as the core technology layer can create a ‘plug and play’ environment that can be innovated on. Central government agencies can support agency and private sector service development by creating clear standards and guidelines for these technologies. For example, the New Zealand Government Chief Digital Office has produced API guidelines for public sector agencies that create tailorable standards to promote agency interoperability.
Agencies can use this core infrastructure to develop seamless, integrated customer journeys that traverse organisations. The New Zealand Smart Start service for new parents (that registers the baby’s birth, gives them a tax number, and connects new parents with welfare services) is a good example of this kind of integrated service, traversing several government agencies.
This core digital infrastructure can be also used to create considerable economic value. Creating ways for companies and NGOs to access government digital services in real time means they can innovate atop public agency data and processes to create new services. For example, an NGO working with families in poverty in a local region might need and have access to education, welfare, health, and justice data and workflows. Currently they manually integrate this information. Government as a Platform would enable them to automate integration of data and workflow with agencies to deliver services in a way that allows them to focus more on their client needs rather than whether they have accurate, up to date information or not.
Co-design with citizens
Working toward the goal of Government as a Platform requires agencies to give special attention to how they develop digital services to build trust in government. One approach to this is people centred design, especially co-design. True co-design that shares decision making is vital to building effective digital public services with disaffected communities. This requires a fundamental shift in how projects develop digital services. It means adopting digital development approaches that focus on clearly understanding what people need and want, as well as creating ways to share decision making throughout the design and development process.
Often government digital service development provides system efficiencies but that is not the same as better or more equitable services. Effective co-design counters this and provides an approach for developing services for people rather than to put processes online. We need to learn to develop for the people not for our process.
Build transparency into digital services
Creating transparency of digital service delivery can also build and maintain trust in government digital services. In May 2020, the New Zealand government released an algorithm charter. This includes direction to publish how algorithms are used in plain language, how data is collected and how the algorithm is used to inform decision making. While this creates challenges in the procurement of AI algorithms (many companies see them as proprietary) or their development, it is crucial for ensuring people can understand how digital technologies are being used to deliver services.
Allowing citizens to easily see the information the government has collected about them, possibly through a verified identity platform, can help build trust in public services. It can also be used to allow people to curate their experience of digital public services where appropriate.
The next 5 to 10 years are critical for modern governments. We need to protect our people, build transparent services, and unlock knowledge economies. I think Government as a Platform can help achieve that. What would it look like in your public sector? If you work in the private sector, what services could you build on it?