Re-imagining online citizen engagement


We’ve all been there.  You need something from your local or state government agency, so you navigate to their website. But instead of finding what you need quickly, as you would with many consumer sites, the site is a mess. 

It’s organized by agency department, which you don’t really understand, or it’s not organized at all, with a hodgepodge of information all over the place.  The search doesn’t really work, presenting search results that are nowhere near what you’re looking for.  You try another tactic and go to Google to search. This presents you with pages of mostly outdated links.  These links typically send you deeper into the site, with no context or navigation ability.

When you do find what you’re looking for, it’s a PDF.  No instructions, just a PDF that you need to fill out with your personal information and then snail-mail back.  Oh wait.  You also need to fill out another form and submit it to a different agency, so you need to enter all that personal data again.

Ugh.

Welcome to the unfortunate status quo. Many government websites were created over a decade ago and haven’t been modernized much since. They tend to follow a departmental structure, requiring users to understand departments and agencies to find what they’re looking for. Site content is frequently out of date and delivered in a variety of formats, with no context or clear instructions.

On top of that, most website creation software used in the government space isn’t flexible enough to enable content creators to automatically post updates to multiple areas, which means there is typically only one way to get at certain pieces of information. For example, tax credit information for seniors, which should be available on the office of aging page, finance department page, and tax credits page, may only end up being published on the page of the agency that produced that information.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are solutions available that can enable government agencies to reliably deliver an excellent web experience for citizens. A service portal is one such solution. It enables agencies to easily offer services in a logical, structured way that doesn’t rely on citizens having to know the vagaries of a government’s departmental hierarchies. Instead, citizens can find what they are looking for and complete what they are trying to do, quickly and efficiently. 

Citizens simply register to use the portal, which gives them an account they can log into at any time, from anywhere, to get what they need.  They can navigate to the information they are searching for—and if they get stuck, they can easily find their way out and get back on track. They can also track the status of all their requests, such as a license application or pothole report, regardless of the departments, agencies, or people involved. As a result, government agencies can provide an experience akin to ecommerce sites, delivering a consistent, engaging experience that will satisfy constituents.  

The service portal augments the traditional web site, providing a way for government agencies to organize and present services to vastly improve a citizen’s ability to find and access what they need. It can also take other valuable information, such as frequently asked questions (FAQs), building locations, contact information, facility hours of operation, and trash collection schedules and turn them into knowledge base articles that make them easy for a citizen to search. 

Machine learning tools can then be applied to continuously improve the relevancy of the results of a visitor’s search to ensure citizens are able to locate the information they’re looking for, fast. It can also be applied to more routine requests to the agency’s public information office, constituent services office, or any public call center.  Using a virtual agent, or chatbot, the site can now help visitors discover answers.

In this way, government agencies can create self-service capabilities like those at the core of most consumer experiences. For citizens, this will go a long way toward boosting customer satisfaction, while obviating the need to get on the phone with a civil servant. This “case-deflection” can free up the agency’s time, allowing staff to innovate instead of just keeping the lights on.

By combining virtual agent or chatbot technology with well-curated knowledge bases, staff can get back valuable time to focus on their mission. This is important to enable them to have the time for those high-touch moments, where a caring employee can make all the difference in someone’s life.

Next steps
Look at your department’s or agency’s website and put yourself in a citizen’s shoes. Try to apply for a service. Note the search path and obstacles you encounter.  Document any paper-based or telephone-based steps in the process - this is low-hanging fruit for transforming your citizens’ digital experience.  Now, consider how a top ecommerce site might present the same information and services you offer. There is your target!

Want to learn more about digital transformation in citizen engagement, read how Tennessee DHS redefines the customer experience for government services.

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