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Whatever happened to the ambitious plans for digital self-service in the public sector?

Our latest annual survey on digital self-service in the public sector shows a widening gap between organisations' goals and their capability to achieve them. We look at what's going wrong - and how to turn things around.

Despite increasing government pressure to shift citizen services to online channels, most UK public sector organisations are making slow progress. Our fourth annual survey on the state of digital self-service in the public sector reveals a startling gap between organisations' digital aspirations and their actual achievements. 

In our first survey back in 2015, respondents had ambitious plans to move the majority of citizen services online - 66% said they'd have 50-100% of services online by 2018 - but these plans remain unfulfilled.

This year's survey shows the stark reality of the lack of progress:

  • Only 11% of respondents currently have 50% or more of their services online.
  • But 46% still believe they'll reach this goal in the next three years (down from 55% last year).

So, bearing in mind that 44% of this year's respondents are happy with their self-service strategy, why is it taking so long to turn strategic goals into meaningful action? And what can be done to accelerate these programmes and start delivering on the promises of digital self-service?

From revolution to evolution

In a recent post, we highlighted the shift in approach to digital self-service, as public sector organisations have abandoned the revolutionary 'big bang' model in favour of incremental evolution. Organisations are implementing self-service one service at a time, partly to prove the cost savings and secure buy-in for future deployments, and partly because they now recognise the huge complexity of moving all citizen services online.

This shift means that while the anticipated cost savings from self-service remain high, the expected savings have shrunk, as organisations have scaled back their revolutionary plans. More than half (52%) of respondents expect to save up to £500k over the next 12 months through self-service, but the proportion expecting to save more than £500k has dropped from 41% in 2015 to just 16% today.

The bullish predictions of success in the 2015 survey have fallen away as the scale of the challenge has become apparent. The technical barriers to effective self-service have remained steady over the last four years:

  • The capabilities of legacy systems are still a major barrier for 54% of respondents.
  • A lack of resources (44%) and in-house skills (39%) also continue to hold organisations back from implementing self-service.

But the biggest barrier to self-service implementation is now changing customer behaviour, with 56% of respondents highlighting it as a significant obstacle.

Customers expect more

Changing customer behaviours are a big reason for shifting to self-service, as people want to interact with organisations in more convenient and efficient ways. But it seems these behaviours are changing too fast for already overstretched public sector organisations to keep up.

The haste to get at least some services online has led to poor user experiences on many public sector self-service portals. On those sites without single sign-on capabilities, for example, customers have to deal with siloed services that make them jump through the same hoops again and again. Often, clunky front-end interfaces are bolted onto creaking back-end systems, leading to poor user adoption, so in many cases the anticipated cost-savings never materialise, as users return to offline channels to get a resolution.

Of course, all these challenges are interlinked: a lack of capability in back-end systems, and a lack of modern development skills and expertise in UX and UI, lead to an inability to meet changing customer expectations.

It's a vicious circle that can seem impossible to escape, until you look beyond the technical challenges and start to question the rationale behind the underlying processes. There's a perception across the public sector that self-service portals must make customers follow the strict processes organisations have relied on for decades - but do they really have to?

It's time to challenge the status quo

Simply shifting services online isn't enough - they often need to be redesigned for digital service delivery. Even the shiniest user interface won't disguise inefficient business processes for long.

A move to digital service delivery is an opportunity to challenge the thinking behind the supporting businesses processes. This will mean rethinking service delivery processes, both from an organisational point of view and, more importantly, from the customer's point of view. Regardless of your organisation's technological capabilities, rethinking processes in this way is the only route to providing services that are easy for customers to use, and simpler and cheaper to deliver.

Understand your customers

With customer expectations and behaviours changing fast, public sector organisations need to find ways to adapt quickly. At heart, it all comes down to knowing your customers, finding ways to capture and analyse customer data so that useful insights are accessible to the teams responsible for digital service delivery. If these teams can be armed with up-to-date insights, it's easier for them to understand what customers are looking for and design digital services that customers actually want to use.

Plus, with better end-to-end service delivery, built around a deep understanding of customers (and improved, targeted promotion of new online services), you can even begin to proactively change customer behaviours, rather than reacting to changes long after they've happened.

Kickstart your transformation

Rethinking service delivery from the customer's point of view is all very well, but in practice this kind of change requires organisation-wide buy-in. Everyone needs to own digital transformation - from senior leadership teams to IT to frontline service delivery teams.

To get more services online, you need to share the success of the services that are already there and show how these successes can be replicated in other areas. It's also important to use the customer insights you've acquired to create a customer-focused culture and provide evidence of the need to rethink service delivery processes to suit modern customer behaviours.

Another way to accelerate the shift to self-service is to ensure you're making effective use of existing government frameworks. For example, there is already an array of proven solutions available on G-Cloud 10 to help you get digital self-service up and running fast.

Next steps

To get the full survey results, further analysis of the findings, and expert recommendations for planning and executing your own digital strategy, download Digital Self-Service in the Public Sector 2018-19  here.