In an era when consumers benchmark any experience against the best service they’ve ever received, government services delivered by digital channels can feel like they leave a lot to be desired.

But, unlike other parts of their lives, when it comes to governments services users can’t shop around for a different provider.

“People don’t have a choice. You have an obligation to provide good services,” says Paul Shetler, co-founder, and partner at Accelerate HQ.

Speaking with Which-50, Shetler the former CEO of the government’s Digital Transformation Office, outlined the structural obstacles governments need to overcome to be more user-centric and how to build a culture of customer empathy.

Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler, co-founder, and partner at Accelerate HQ.

The goal is to provide services that are comparable, or even better than in the rest of your online life. Unlike ordering an Uber or shopping with Amazon, where the complexity is hidden, government organisations expose users to the complexity.

According to Shetler, we have a long way to go before government service experience comes close to the Amazon experience.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that government tends to be inwardly focused, rather than putting the user or consumer at the centre of their operations.

“Government doesn’t organise itself around its users. It really doesn’t. Government organises itself around itself. You’ve got all these different agencies, all these departments and the way that they deliver services is determined by their own organisations.”

“They’re really just reflecting themselves back to the outside world. People find that confusing because there isn’t necessarily any sort of logic to the way the government departments are organised today versus the ways they’re organised tomorrow. So if you’ve got 1,524 different websites for the Australian government, is that really helpful?”

Another one of the unique challenges facing government that Shetler first noticed when he came into field was there is “no common yardstick.” While the private sector can usually measure itself against the impact on the bottom line, there’s no comparable consistent goal for the public sector and each stakeholder will look at a situation from their own policy area or department perspective, he explained.

“It’s very, very fragmented or very hard to get people to unite behind a common goal, precisely because they don’t think they’re all on the same boat together,” he said.

Building empathy

The core of service design should be making it simple, fast and easy to get things done.

“When people just want to get something done they just want to have it happen almost by magic — for it to be as simple as possible. Digital can do that and it should be doing that.”

One successful method for building customer empathy across departments is by conducting qualitative research to understand what people actually need, not in a lab setting but in their lives.

Sitting down next to the user as they try to get something done and observing what’s happening in their everyday lives is increasingly popular in government service design, which more traditionally used focus groups to test ideas.

Shetler argues this method has a big impact on developers, product managers, and policy professionals, “otherwise it becomes a very abstract thing.”

“We weren’t taking them out of the context of their life and putting them into a lab. You’re actually seeing how they would do things in their home while their baby is sleeping and they are trying to get something taken care of with the department of human services.”

“When you’ve got all this other stuff happening around you, how does it feel to be put on hold?”

“You don’t know until you’ve actually seen it and it makes a big difference in terms of how you deliver services because things that might seem perfectly rational might be a big problem when somebody has a lot of stuff going on in their lives in the first place.”

The process involves reporting observations back to showcases and share what they’ve learned between different product teams and act on the insights.

“It was incredibly useful for educating people because most of them spend their entire time inside an office and they never actually saw the user.”

Paul Shetler is a member of the advisory panel for the Which-50 Digital Experience Awards.

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