As consumers, the way we interact with private companies has gone through a sea change. From travel booking to video streaming, digital platforms have focused on convenience, speed and proactive recommendations. Dealing with public services, by contrast, is often a fractious experience marred by confusion, duplication of effort, friction, and a lack of transparency.
Getting a new passport should be as easy as banking online. With digital transformation at the top of mind for many governments, there is an opportunity to close the experience gap between the public and private sectors.
Citizens should expect – and policy-makers should deliver – joined-up, proactive public services.
Realising these benefits is complex and difficult, but the ultimate prize will be worth the effort: public services that are reliable, cost-effective, frictionless and even delightful.
Why proactive public services should be the norm, not the exception
Proactive public services (PPS) use existing data on individuals and businesses to help decide if they are eligible for a service and to trigger provision.
For example, new parents might be entitled to a child benefit payment. Traditionally, parents would need to go through several steps to prove their eligibility, filling out a dedicated form or ten, perhaps appearing at an office in person – all while coming to terms with the responsibilities of parenthood.
Under the PPS model, eligibility checks are carried out automatically as soon as a hospital registers a new birth. If passed, a payment is immediately deposited into the parents’ bank account. For means-tested services, data on incomes can be pulled in to determine eligibility (for example, from the tax authorities).
Such a service is more reliable: it does not depend on parents’ awareness of the benefit and reduces the scope for human error. It can be more cost-effective: quicker to provide, with less duplication, lower infrastructure costs (as fewer physical offices are needed) and a lower risk of fraud. This adds up to significant benefits to the state: savings on each transaction and better outcomes, too.
Proactivity removes friction: in most cases, it requires no action from citizens or civil servants. This could be a real boon for users with disabilities or special needs and more convenience for everyone. And PPS can become a source of delight for users, matching the best digital experiences available in the private sectors.
Importantly, proactive provision requires a joined-up approach, breaking apart siloes between departments as they pool together data on eligibility and provision. This means reimagining the function and design of state institutions not building digital channels for analogue services.
Despite their convenience, proactive services remain a niche approach even among highly digitised governments. In the European Union, for example, 81 per cent of government services are available online but only 6 per cent are delivered proactively. Some countries, however, are beginning to test the waters:
In Austria, family allowance payments are automatically offered to every eligible family once a new birth is registered. If the government does not have sufficient data, parents are asked to provide the missing information; otherwise (the majority of cases), they are simply informed by post of the decision to offer the allowance.
In Portugal, a Social Energy Tariff was set up to subsidise electricity costs for vulnerable households. Initially, uptake was low as citizens needed to apply for it. By integrating data from across energy companies, tax authorities and the social security system, the government was able to offer the tariff automatically to eligible citizens, increasing uptake from 150,000 to 725,000 households (7% of the population).
In the Netherlands and the UK, annual tax returns are pre-filled with existing information (for example, from payroll records). Citizens only have to check and, if necessary, correct or add to the information before submitting the return.
So why isn’t it happening everywhere?
Proactive provision could genuinely move the needle on citizen satisfaction with government. A 2013 McKinsey survey showed that speed and simplicity – both of which are among the benefits of proactivity – shape public perceptions of government services.
The study highlighted three main challenges: governments’ focus on individual touch points rather than the end-to-end citizen journey; a lack of data-driven insights about which services citizens were satisfied with or not, and why; and simplistic measures of success, like the total number of citizens served.
These barriers, which are essentially cultural in nature, would need to be addressed.
There are technical and policy requirements. Departments need to be able to exchange and connect data on citizens. Interoperability and consistent records (for example, digital IDs) are must-haves.
Aside from investment in national data infrastructure, this requires robust policies on data collection, protection and ethical use. To avoid duplication, government offices need to strictly follow the “once-only principle”. Citizens must be made aware of what data the government holds, why they are collected and how they are used.
In this context, people’s trust in their government’s ability to safeguard data is key to the success of the proactive approach. While such trust is low in many countries, TBI’s Globalism Survey suggests that greater levels of digitisation in government are linked to higher levels of trust. OECD research shows that the better public services are, the higher the trust. If proactivity can improve the experience of public services, it may help repair the relationship between government and citizen.
Not all government services can be delivered proactively. Different levels of proactivity may be possible at different stages of service provision, This will depend on the type of service and its complexity.
One recent framework makes a distinction between determining eligibility for a service and its delivery: some services may be automated at the first stage but require human input for the second one.
Research in the Netherlands also highlighted constraints on the user side. Citizens want to maintain control and initiative when it comes to both their personal data and service delivery. These considerations must shape the technical and policy solutions underpinning proactive provision.
Resolving these challenges may not be easy, but proactive public services hold the promise of transforming the relationship between citizens and governments. How we interact with government must not fall short of our daily experience of other digital platforms – and there is no intrinsic reason that it should.
The digital government unit at the Tony Blair Institute is exploring these and other issues around proactive public services. We would welcome all input to this work, so please get in touch with us if you would like to contribute to these discussions.