How can the UK communicate better with citizens online?

Fiona McParland, publishing manager at APS Group asks if the UK is not as digital as we think and discusses what can be done to boost digital communication with citizens

In March 2017, the UK government published its new digital strategy, which contains ambitious plans to take public services online. Department for Culture, Media and Sport minister Karen Bradley announced that the strategy will “…ensure that everyone is able to access and use the digital services that could help them manage their lives, progress at work, improve their health and wellbeing, and connect to friends and family.” At the same time, the report announces that the UN has recognised the UK as the world leader in digital government.


Not as digital as we think

This all paints a very positive picture, especially when you consider the widespread success of initiatives already underway. The Government Digital Service for example, has been pivotal in successfully integrating personal data and images across passports and driving licences, with the DVLA now also trialling Amazon’s Alexa technology as a potential tool for customer service enquiries.

And digital publishing has been a huge success story in the public sector, emerging as an affordable way of sharing information to a digitally-literate audience. Not only has it made it easier for the public decide how and when they consume information, but it’s also extremely time and cost effective for public bodies themselves. This is particularly true for documents that need to be updated or edited regularly which can be tweaked and downloadable across multiple platforms in minutes.

Yet despite these success stories, the UK is some way down the rankings for online public services, according to the European Commission. In a list that scores the 28 countries of the European Union in terms of their provision of online public services, the UK comes in at number 18. Estonia holds the top spot at number one, while Finland is second and The Netherlands stands at number three. So, why is the UK still perceived as lagging behind and what we can we learn from our European neighbours?

Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to be all about the underlying infrastructure in each country. In the EC’s wider Digital Economy and Society Index, which includes other factors such as connectivity and digital skills, Estonia is only in ninth position, while the UK is at number seven. UK citizens are well-connected, with good broadband coverage, using a variety of online services in the private sector. Most people shop online, access online entertainment and use social networking sites, and yet the country has a disproportionately low score when it comes to eGovernment. To improve this score, the government needs to look carefully at the types of services it is offering to ensure that they correspond to those that people are already happily using in other areas of their lives.


What’s on your device?

Most technologies in the private sector have been developed with a view to making or saving money, and they are based on what people need and want.  The public sector can learn a lot from this. If the demographic you are targeting predominantly uses smartphones but doesn’t have a laptop or desktop computer, make sure the applications you are offering are adapted for mobile. Think how existing technology might be able to solve some of the problems of local residents; in Germany for example, citizens can now opt for a video consultation with their doctor from the comfort of their own home, via a simple app.

Industries as diverse as financial services, retail and construction can all feed ideas into the public sector. From bins that can signal when they are full, online reporting systems to flag up damaged roads and pollution monitoring apps available to residents on their mobiles, there are dozens of technologies that can be deployed if the appetite is there to use them – and if they are made accessible to all.


Need to pull together

Another thing holding us back in the UK is the fragmented way in which public services have adopted digital technology. Local authorities, with autonomy over their own IT budgets, have offered online services to customers at their own pace. There is a lot of potential for councils to work together when it comes to offering services such as allowing residents to view their council tax bills online, or communicating via online forms and instant messaging.

This is particularly true in our major cities; in London alone there are no fewer than 32 boroughs, all of which could be consulting with one another about online, and indeed offline, services. The same is true in Greater Manchester and other Metropolitan districts.


Public information in safe hands

A big issue, which doesn’t just affect the UK, is security.  With cyber attacks on the rise, people need to be reassured that the Government is taking good care of their details when it comes to sensitive data such as tax information, social care and health records. In Germany, data protection is such a big issue that it still isn’t possible to apply for a driving licence or passport on the internet, and most people won’t even use a credit card for online shopping. The UK government is investing £1.9bn in security technology; the next step is for it to communicate clearly that the public’s information is safe.

As citizens, we are used to interacting with retailers and financial services firms through all channels, and our expectations of our public bodies can only continue to grow.  For the public sector to offer us the same level of personalised, omnichannel service it’s going to take a significant amount of government investment in infrastructure, security and leadership. In the meantime, however, small steps towards greater collaboration between public bodies can still go an awfully long way.

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