Best Practice
Website Assessments
      About Us | Services | Evaluation Criteria | Contact Us

The End Game for Government Websites


This paper is a summary of compelling prospects envisaged for government transformation the way an e-government strategist would like it to happen. The purpose of the paper is to give public sector decision-makers a sense of what could be so they can see an outline of their agency's potential online future. Central to this proposed vision is the idea of flipping the broadcast-style model of one agency to many people, to the personalised and integrated many-to-one model of government. It can be easy to stay mired in the grind of standards compliance, executive ambivalence, under-resourcing and agency siloism. There is a different way that meets users where they are, provides simplicity of engagement and makes a difference in their lives - a true public e-service.

Progress to Date - 2009

In 2009, practically every OECD government entity has a website of some degree. Most organisations have published a full array of current information related to their functions. A good majority of agency transactions or e-services are either online or are in development, some having had several generations of development. These are all useful to the clients and stakeholders of government. It provides practically 24-hour, 365 days a year accessibility to government; something never achieved before. From an online PC anyone, wherever they are, can find what they need and inform themselves before either transacting directly or enquiring by phone or otherwise with a government agency.

On the other hand there are still real shortfalls with the current state of online delivery by government, which include;

  • Many sites ignore standards that would make them accessible by users with physical disabilities. This is a clear expectation for tax-payer funded organisations with obligations to essentially all citizens and yet many users are being disenfranchised by poor accessibility features.
  • Government entities have few incentives for creating efficient and engaging customer services experiences and this rolls over into the online channel. Many government sites place a low value on ease of use let alone ensuring the user is seamlessly able to fulfill the objectives they came into the site to achieve.
  • Most government sites tend to be structured around a grand hierarchy of subjects full of content the vast majority of which is irrelevant to any one user coming in. Key stakeholders' interests are not remembered and they must start again browsing and searching through this 'noise' each time they return.
  • Each government site tends to focus on delivering the content of that organisation only with little reference beyond 'related links' to services outside its host's walls. People who don't have an intimate knowledge of the responsibilities of government can easily get lost, fall between the cracks or miss out on entitlements or useful services because government is not well integrated online.
  • Consultation documents online are often an afterthought of traditional consultation processes, appearing often as PDF documents and lucky to include a response form. Usually less than 5% of affected stakeholders bother to provide comments. Responses usually go into a 'black box' decision making process with no further accountability to those affected. Levels of participation, decision quality and buy in are much lower than they could be.

An Extended Vision of Government Transformation

Government transformation relies on five key online capabilities which must all be in place to realise the potential:

  • User experience design - designing each website to ensure users are able to engage with the resources presented, flow through content of relevance and fulfill objectives in an efficient and effective way
  • Personalisation - matching of interests to audience's needs, initially at a group level and then at an individual level
  • Cross-organisation integration - content aggregation of like-audienced agencies to form user-focused services clusters
  • Cross-government collaboration - enabling shared views into collectively contributed knowledge areas with parallel discussion and relevant processes and tools
  • e-Consultation - opening opportunities for input into decisions affecting people, the online channel offers unique possibilities of personalizing consultation material, visualizing and simulating effects of change and collaboration features to elicit views of affected stakeholders

This approach is complementary to the e-Government models published by Gartner, the World Bank and the United Nations but attempts to go beyond the largely technology development assumptions that these models use. It attempts to address both the obstacles to development and the impact on society and government. There is also included a flexibility that does not assume there is a one best way to serving the stakeholders of government via the online channel.

Assumptions of this Vision

  • People are embracing the Internet to a huge degree
  • Computers will get more powerful, bandwidth will increase and more people will get online access
  • People's expectations of online delivery from organisations they interact with are rising (including from government)
  • People want effective, usable government information and services at a minimum of cost
  • People will move to a different channel of information and services delivery if it is better, easier to use and cheaper than alternatives
  • Online users like to be offered relevant choices that match with their circumstances from the organisations they are interacting with
  • People don't necessarily care which organisation is delivering what they want, just that they get it (and someone is accountable)
  • People are suspicious of too much centralization of power by anyone (including government agencies)
  • People do not want their private information misused
  • People want to have their say on issues that affect them significantly if it is easy to do so
  • People are willing to be reasonable in considering that other people affected by an issue may want different things than they do

User Experience Design

Like most websites, those of government should not be solely about the publishing organisation's goals but reflect a balance with the interests and desires of the users. In fact, user experience design puts the user's interests, objectives and preferences at the centre of interactive online design. User experience design is essentially about empathizing with the user's mindset and asking what would I want to see in each user role at every point in the site that is relevant to me right now. Offering meaningful choices is a key focus. And it is not so easy, since it also inevitably involves taking out the irrelevant choices.

User experience design (UX) demands that content is offered that is findable, useful, usable, accessible, credible and of value. It is about making a difference to users by helping them to solve their problems, even if they are not fully clear about what their problems are. In government terms, it is about realising authentic public service in online form. While trust is sometimes assumed by public servants, UX treats trust as having to be earned from users. Each step on the branching journey into a public website, at a conscious or unconscious level either enhances or diminishes trust. Being aware of the effect of an interactive space on the psychology of the user is important to the chances of that user achieving what they want and in so doing the organisation achieving its goals.

A visual model illustrating the psychology of trust and engagement in website design is the pyramid of involvement.


Pyramid of Involvement showing the home page at the base and levels of content above at deepening level of enagagement or involvement toward the top objective actions

The main idea here is that new users come into a website, gain a feel for what is there and take small steps in trusting the site before being expected to commit to deep levels of involvement such as giving out personal information or signing up to user accounts. The site designer should allow them to take a step at a time through content that requires only a little from the user first to develop increasing trust in the delivering organisation. This process can be gone through audience by audience tailoring relevant content and its style to each stakeholder group at ever-deepening levels of engagement or involvement.

People generally still have a choice over which channel to a government organisation they prefer, whether it be by phone, mail, local office or website. How they perceive the ease at which they may achieve their needs will govern which channel they choose. To the government entity this choice directly affects the cost of delivery. If their low-transaction cost website has a poor user experience then people won't want to use it. Similarly channel shifting will happen, especially over the medium term, if the user experience is superb and most users can easily achieve their objectives. There may be a leap of faith required to invest in a medium that may not be as tangible to senior managers as being able to walk into a regional office, a call reception centre or mail room. It is up to online champions within government to use the evidence available to make the case for serious investment in the e-channel.

Personalisation

Personalisation is the matching of user's needs with content of relevance. For a website, personalisation starts at a general level with audience-grouped navigation and utilities like subscriptions to newsletters and email notifications of events or new content, ideally by interest area. The personalisation end game is individual accounts or extranets for each key stakeholder user where content interests are fully tailorable and individual transactions and services are present. Depending on the context, users can also be offered relevant forms of collaboration, feedback or e-consultation.

Personalisation relies upon knowledge of each user's interests which is also of use to all other channels of an organisation's external communications. Ideally, a shared stakeholder relationship management / CRM system would collate the collective knowledge about stakeholder needs and previous contact history so informed choices can be made to drive online presentation of relevant content and be available to enquiry-handling staff. Stakeholders to an organisation then will see the government agency as a 'smart' organisation which remembers their needs and interests without having to ask for them each time and dealing elegantly with an enquiry no matter what channel the person chooses on the day.

Cross-Organisation Integration

Despite the ease of linking among organisations online, most government agencies prefer to focus on publishing their own information and services delivery online before they look outside their silo at comprehensive integration options for users. The users of government websites often have a natural interest in information or services of other government agencies. At present, users must start with one site, work out its navigation, find content of interest, then to get other services they usually go to the home page of another site, work out another navigation approach, before hopefully finding what they need and so on. If there are login requirements it means holding and remembering usernames and passwords for multiple sites. The risk of getting lost or confused or falling between the gaps of agencies' coverage is considerable.

A far more reasonable approach is to cluster the content of government agencies serving the same user groups together. The potential for these integrated services clusters is huge. Ideally they should be agency-neutral platforms which champion the needs of the user groups being served. A 'dashboard' interface allows only audience-specific resources to be offered. Good integration should result in 'reskinning' agency-supplied content and ensuring a consistent style so users do not have to leave the one-stop site to get key content. Another aspect is to rework application processes with common elements so they serve the needs of all agencies but which are completed only once by the user. On top of comprehensive and integrated information and e-services may be added personalisation and e-consultation. Personalisation is more worthwhile for the user when all content of relevance is in one place. Then an all of government-to-individual user relationship becomes more meaningful and useful to all. Similarly, more participation in e-consultation may be likely from a credible space which the user trusts.

This 'seamless' or holistic approach has been long touted in e-government strategies but clearly has been resisted. At one level, agencies want to finish their own content delivery before looking at cross-government solutions. Perhaps stronger reservation comes from a political protection of sovereign service delivery channels which is diminished in cross-agency channels. User-oriented solutions led by large agencies in a potential cluster can also get easily derailed by the threat of takeover of activities of the smaller agencies. The incentives for improved quality and innovative service from government are minimal relative to all the factors pushing against them. It is no wonder they can be easily unravelled.

Cross-organisation integration and personalisation combined produce some of the most exciting strategic possibilities for government transformation.


Cross chart of personalisation against cross-organisation integration starting with one to many and moving toward many to one government

Starting at single agencies with no personalisation like so many government websites are still today (one to many), progress is made by going toward deepening integration ideally with all other organisations serving the same user role (many to many) to create a full content set, then adding deep personalisation to create many to one delivery. An alternative, but probably more expensive route, is for individual agencies to deeply personalise their own sites (one to one) before adding broader content from like-audienced organisations.

Our white paper "Integrated Services Clusters" goes into the nature of these cross-government online spaces in more depth and proposes suggestions for their development based upon independent facilitation and iterative design.

Cross-Government Collaboration

This area is simply contemporary collaboration capabilities applied to the inter-government context. This is typically rich extranet space. In New Zealand, the Public Sector Intranet currently serves at a central government level. Mailing lists also continue to provide some level of information-sharing and communication across professional peer groups in all levels of government.

The end-game expected in this space includes contemporary capabilities applied to the problems and needs or specific public professional groups. These capabilities are expected to include moderation by peer leaders, vendor and resource rating, and common document templates, supplemented by specialist applications and project management techniques like issue tracking. Any collaborative space which includes IT application development can usefully include suggestions for new functions with voting and / or contribution budget bidding for shared cost development projects.

e-Democracy / e-Consultation

Since the emergence of online technologies there has been discussion about the prospect of applying them to the process of political engagement with citizens and stakeholders. A broad range of so-called e-democracy possibilities have been proposed including e-voting, wiki legislation, electronic town meetings, etc. While these aspects have value in their niches, the killer application for e-democracy is e-consultation especially with regard to individual government organisations. It is through e-consultation that improved dialogue and trust between citizens and the state can be established and ultimately better decision quality and improved buy-in.

E-consultation, unlike so many areas of modern life, still seems remarkably resistant to being re-engineered. Most consultations use the web and email as an afterthought, usually by putting print versions of the documents online and perhaps offering a web form for submissions. This barely scratches the surface of what is possible when applying contemporary online capabilities to this area.

Our paper "After Deep Deliberation" goes into the potential and related issues in greater depth. It talks about moving to an e-consultation platform approach that can be used and configured by agencies at the time they conduct consultations. It would have a rich toolset of methods for allowing stakeholder participants to see personalised views into how the proposed changes would affect them including visualisation and simulation. Multiple levels of summarisation help make time use more efficient. Ongoing polling of opinions allows a 'running' snapshot of the mood of the key stakeholder groups. A separate personal policy portal is also described as being useful at a national level to match people's interests with upcoming consultations by any government agency.

Conclusions

In the fifteen years since the World-Wide Web became mainstream, government and its organisations have been participating in this revolutionary medium to good effect. Usage has grown to a point where websites are more than insignificant service delivery channels for many government agencies. Rather than hanging up tools (and budgets) now though there are some further steps that take government closer to realising the true potential of this interactive medium beyond putting the old resources online.

User experience design directs attention away from the repository model of each silo's content sitting in one big subject tree for everyone toward a holistic view of user's needs, anticipating the state of mind users have at any point, and presenting only those options that are relevant at that time to keep them in a flow state. Personalisation can tailor resources to individual user's needs by matching their stated and implied interests with what may be most relevant at that time. Cross-organisation integration looks to create joined up web spaces with content contributed from all across government and beyond to create true one-stop shops for each audience type.

Combining personalisation and integration produces the radical potential of 'many to one' government delivery tailored to each individual user's needs and interests. Cross-government collaboration will deepen the connections of like-minded public professionals behind the scenes. And e-consultation seeks to apply green grass thinking to the stodgy world of policy consultations and transform decision-making through deeper public input and therefore greater buy-in to resulting policy changes.

Each of these transformative potentials is likely to come about anyway but government online channels managers seeing the deeper possibilities can recharge the speed of government's transformation. If these challenges are taken up public stakeholders will see what engaging public service can truly be about.



Please send any comments or feedback to:

shane@e-govwatch.org.nz

Shane Middlemiss
Director
e-Gov Watch Ltd

 

© 2009 e-Gov Watch Ltd