The startup effect: Digital transformation in government

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Stephen Morgan, co-founder of Squiz, discusses how government bodies can learn from innovative startups.

Earlier in the summer, Professor Vishanth Weerakkody from Brunel University released a paper criticising the government’s digital transformation efforts. A major issue, he points out, is that the government has an “obsession with websites” – what he means is: transferring services online isn’t really digital transformation.

I agree; a citizen’s experience is unlikely to improve if an organisation’s services, resources and tools are simply ‘put online’. There needs to be a thoughtful, citizen-centric approach to digitalising service delivery so, whether renewing parking permits or reporting nuisance neighbours, the result isn’t just the same physical form transferred to a new webpage.

With new, agile startups providing a seamless experience to end users in all sectors, citizens’ expectations of online service delivery platforms have been raised. However, instead of government departments seeing this as a battle, they can instead learn from startups, as opposed to admitting defeat.

Where does the problem stem from?

In essence, and in line with the natural change of user behaviour, millions has been invested in pushing people online, away from more costly channels, such as call centres. However, investment, both time and monetary, tends to stop once a service is seen to have been ‘put online’, and this is where the problem really starts to become apparent.

In order for a digital transformation project to succeed, organisations must be looking beyond just creating a website, and ask themselves ‘how can this website be integrated into the wider customer experience?’ This is what startups have done so well – they have prioritised the customer, as opposed to taking a business-first approach. Uber, for example, revolutionised the domestic travel sector with a business model based solely on improvements to the customer journey and, more recently, has extended their customer offering with the launch of Uber EATs, allowing food to be delivered to people’s doorsteps.

Once this perspective is taken, real and positive change can be brought to users, just as we have seen startups provide stellar services to customers. This consideration for the wider user experience will make the online service more useful and is more likely to be used by citizens on an ongoing basis. If the customer journey isn’t looked at as a whole, often citizens will return to old channels, resulting in an expensive and unused system.

Government departments must be looking at their digital strategy from the point of view of the citizen, not their own organisation. In addition, technology can only be viewed as one element of digital transformation and there needs to be the right people and strategy in place to ensure a website is only a part of improving customer experience, not just to the sole driver of change.

Barriers to innovation

Often legacy technology systems are viewed as being cheaper and easier to maintain than entirely revamping the system. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It is vital to remember that a good website is only as good as the underlying strategy and organisation infrastructure surrounding it. When back-end processes are disjointed from front-end offerings, whether that’s the result of a technical issue or a human error, you are left with fragmented points of contact and a negative, often frustrating, experience for the user. Although your organisation may view the website as a different platform to a telephone helpline, to the user, each of these channels connects to, and represents, your organisation. Therefore, looking at all touchpoints holistically is necessary to ensure consistency and positivity across the user experience.

In addition, the siloed nature of departments only exacerbates the damage done by fragmented technology systems. The structure of some government organisations is archaic, meaning that any digital transformation strategy will also need to look at improving collaboration across job functions, both internally and externally, as a way of altering the customer experience.

Collaborating with startups

Our own research found that 89% of digitally mature businesses plan to improve partnerships with external companies in order to innovate. Whilst this research focuses on private businesses, and government departments don’t always have the means to forge business partnerships with startups, local governments can learn from this collaborative approach to digital transformation.

By leveraging external influences and learning from the successes of agile startups that have excelled in user experience, cross-functional teams can be created that focus on ways to challenge the traditional ways of working. Collaboration is a part of almost every successful innovation as it provides alternate viewpoints and expertise of various individuals. For example, local governments could promote car sharing and cutting emissions with a startup such as Zipcar, or UberPool.

Looking at the ways in which startups have gone beyond ‘just the website’ to enhance customer experience is a great starting point. You only need to look at the seamless journey that Airbnb provides users when moving between online and offline services for inspiration.

Citizens are increasingly expecting high quality engagements from the digital platforms that they use, and a government website should be no exception. By learning from the investment that has gone into the customer experience as a whole by younger startups, government departments can begin to make real change and build an experience for the customer, thus embarking on a successful digital transformation project.