Pandemic gives the UK government's digital services a boost

Millions of UK citizens turned to public-sector digital services during the COVID-19 outbreak. With many wanting to make that shift permanent, how can government organisations offer the best possible experience for users?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked considerable interest in digital apps and services supplied by the UK Government and public services, according to research by SAS, a leading analytics software company.

Nearly one in five people in the UK, more than 12 million people, began using a government digital service or mobile app for first time during the pandemic. (That trend was reflected in other sectors, with 20% of the UK population accessing NHS and other healthcare services digitally.)

The research found that a quarter of those who had turned to government online services would continue to do so permanently, instead of opting for in-person or physical interactions. And more than one in five plan to use a mixture of online and physical interactions.

That interest in digital services is prompting government agencies to re-think how and what they offer online — and how to make things better.

Data-driven customer experiences

Research has shown that consumers are more prepared to share data if they can benefit from doing so. In the commercial sector, this can be anything from a better financial rate to a more personalised experience.

But when it comes to sharing information with the government, the benefits of aren’t always as obviou — especially if doing so doesn’t deliver a better user experience.

In May 2021, the Government Digital Service (GDS) outlined its 2021-2024 plan, which includes linking services that span multiple government agencies and data from across departments.

The SAS research found that UK residents grew more comfortable connecting with government and public services, and showed a greater willingness to share personal data.

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they were more willing to share their data if it results in a better experience or if they are rewarded in some way for doing so.

Steve Perks, head of customer intelligence solutions at SAS UK & Ireland, said that  digital services were vital during the pandemic and most people could access and use them fairly easily.

“I think it's good that they were there and that they were heavily utilised, but I think the challenge moving forward is to make them a preferred platform, rather than one that is only used in a time where it's a necessity or the only option," Perks said.

In terms of user experience, Perks said the GDS plan for the next three years should eliminate the need to continuously supply information and data that other government departments already have. He stressed that the integrity or accuracy of data, rather than collecting as much information as possible, is important for success.

“It’s good that data is shared, but it should only be shared where appropriate. It shouldn’t be all departments having access to the data, it should be about what data actually adds value to the service being offered,” Perks said. “More data isn't in itself an aim; it should be more accurate data.”

During the pandemic, the forced closure of most in-person interactions predictably drove people to access online services in greater numbers than before. Although convenience may prompt people to keep accessing services digitally in a post-COVID world, Perks said he’s keen on making sure consumers choose digital because the experience is equal or better to the offline one.

“How can we use this digital experience to either go above and beyond what you can get in the physical world?” he said.

He also argued that unless government agencies analyse data properly, they won't  understand it or make better-informed decisions that could ultimately benefit users.

“That's what we expect in the commercial sector and sometimes it can be a bit jarring if you go into an environment where you don't get anything that's personalised and the information you're looking for feels like it's hidden, rather than being surfaced to you,” Perks said. “This isn't all about taking data from the user; it's about actually using data to surface what they're trying to achieve — and help them do that. It's personalisation and it should be the same in government as it is in the commercial sector.”

The importance of accessibility

Lee Percox, chief operating officer at Silktide, a company that works with organisations in both the public and private sectors to help make their websites and online services more accessible, applauded the GDS' efforts.

According to Silktide, the accessibility of government websites in the UK regularly outperforms their counterparts in countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia.

“Credit where credit's due,” Percox said. GDS have done an “incredible” job making the gov.uk website is one of the “best and most amazing websites in the world” for accessibility.

A couple of years ago, Silktide launched an index to rank UK-based public and private sector organisations on how accessible their websites are against Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In the public sector, Silktide ranked the websites of everything from ambulance services, housing authorities, NHS trusts, and central and local governments. Its private sector rankings include newspapers, rail operators, supermarkets, and mobile networks.

When Silktide started looking into local councils in December 2020, Percox said the average score was 80.4 out of 100; that figure has now risen to 87.

“[GDS] must have some seriously talented staff and great processes," he said, "but I think the problem is we need to find more ways to have that talent trickle down from the GDS into these local authorities."

As is often the case with public sector organisations, legacy technology is often a hurdle when it comes to progress. Percox said Microsoft technologies are often heavily ingrained in many organisations’ tech stacks, but solutions like Sharepoint are fundamentally inaccessible. (Google Drive doesn’t offer a more accessible alternative, either, he said.)

“Can you imagine the size of that challenge, to try and uproot an entire council from everything they’ve always done and how they’ve always worked, with a massive document store?” Percox said.

“These tech companies need to do more as well, because these councils, local authorities, and NHS trusts — they're never going to be able to build everything in house. They're going to have to go out and use third-party vendors.”

Perks said that although most of the digital services accessed during the pandemic were usable by the majority, it’s important that organisations don’t become complacent and continue to invest in making sure their platforms offer an accessible and rewarding user experience.

For some organisations, that's not always easy, Percox said. Although directives from the EU and the UK government about website accessibility and minimum standards have been released, a number of organizations continue to lag behind, due mostly to budgetary restraints. Smaller organisations often just have one or two people in charge of their website; turning to outside agencies and developers to help with compliance  could be costly.

In the commercial sector, if a company doesn’t offer a good digital experience, one of its competitors will — drawing customers away to shop elsewhere. But in the public sector, choice is often less apparent and sometimes completely unavailable, meaning its vital these organisations listen to customer feedback and ensure that services meet user needs.

It's not clear what happens to public sector organisations who aren’t compliant. Although the accessibility directive from the EU has helped some in the public sector, Percox said there’s still a feeling amongst others who haven’t made the needed  changes of "but what’s really going to happen?"

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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