Government organisations around the world are being pushed to become more digital and innovate to better serve their citizens.

By Greg Gatherer, account manager at Liferay Africa

In South Africa, systems are frequently unavailable, fractured, and disparate. And even though South Africa is undergoing digital transformation, the country is still a long way from being a digital economy.

While it is acknowledged that digital transformation must play an essential role in today’s government, it’s important that its mindset, goal, and long-term strategy must be built on trust. Regardless of the industry, digital transformation is an organisational reorientation that employs digital technology to put users first.

Understanding the trust game

How people experience government digital services influences their trust and confidence in agencies.

There are two main reasons for the gap in trust between people and organisations:

* People are accessing government services during high-stress situations; and failure to meet expectations can damage trust.

* Expectations are formed by the private sector’s services, but digital transformation is more challenging for agencies because they have to navigate regulations and policies that the private sector doesn’t need to worry about.

When people try to access government services, it’s often during unpleasant situations, such as reporting an infrastructure failure or navigating immigration, taxes, child welfare, or other services. They’re frustrated and searching for solutions online without knowing if the results are trustworthy or up-to-date.

When the government fails to meet expectations in these moments of need, it is the public trust that takes the hit. When we consider when and why people access government services, it’s clear that what people are asking for is very reasonable: simple, fast and transparent processes that give them confidence that the government is working for them.

What makes a digital service trustworthy?

Not every problem requires complex solutions, and focusing on getting the detail right can often have bigger gains than revamping an entire system.

Here are some of the key tactics that public sector departments can apply across their current web and mobile services to create experiences that build trust for citizens:

* Modern design and interfaces: interfaces that are simple and modern reassure people that they have found services that are up-to-date and relevant .

* Plain language: plain and friendly language in place of government jargon helps citizens feel that they are interacting with real people, rather than a faceless agency. Try to convey the message that the department is on the citizen’s side to make services feel more approachable.

* Easy access to help: offer plenty of options for assistance, such as self-service portals, call centres or directors to a local office. One of the reasons for distrust among people is that they worry that, if they make a mistake on a form, they will be denied services they should qualify for. Make it easy for people to ask questions and receive accurate answers.

* Clear actions and next steps: when a user arrives at a site, it should be immediately obvious what action they should take. By laying out clear steps, you can reassure users that they are following the correct process, whether they’re filling out an application or just viewing a community calendar.

* Pre-screenings: when applicable, short pre-screenings that confirm whether people qualify for services can save time and reduce later frustration. This can be as simple as a short survey or list of requirements for people to review.

* Familiar processes: many people have made online payments through an e-retailer, but not through a government service. If you can mimic that purchase process so that it looks familiar to people, they will be more confident that the payment went through correctly.

* Consistency: when applicable, agencies should make sure they have a similar look and feel across every device on which their services may be used.

Developing the right digital skills

Beneath the service of use-centric, friendly digital services, one of the keys to sustaining trust is to take a careful look at how your agency designs and delivers these services on the back end. The digital skills your team needs to develop aren’t just about coding or hardware.

They’re about understanding the current technology landscape and embracing the innovation processes that others have found successful — such as the idea that more eyes on a project are a good thing, that good ideas won’t necessarily come from people sitting in the room with you, and that development should be fast, transparent and open to empirical feedback, no matter what stage the project is in.

These are the principles that allow tech innovators to create the products they do, and government departments will benefit from incorporating the same ideas into their digital strategies.

Even something as simple as a self-service portal can benefit from modern development practices and standards. The best choice will depend on the department’s goals and its current systems, but striving to choose modern and innovative technology will create a better platform as digital services continue to evolve.

Initiating citizen engagement

Although engagement is a two-way activity, people will not engage if they believe it will be a waste of their time. While some input can be gathered through data and analytics, agencies must also find a way to receive individual feedback from people to achieve true engagement. You can take the first step in repairing any unfavourable perceptions and initiating fresh participation by putting effort into developing better services.

Here are some of the general principles and ideas:

* Open data: people want insights into things like government salaries and data. Open data includes presenting the story behind the data, rather than daily dumps of numbers, so that people can understand the impact of what they’re seeing and how it affects them.

* Accountability: share details on project statuses, survey results, future plans, and the thought behind current service offerings — including why certain pieces of information are needed, how long processes may take, and who a person can contact if they have questions.

* Community data: build community calendars with data on local events and activities open to the public. Information is itself a service, and you can build trust by being a connector between what citizens are looking for and what other groups in the community are offering.

Digital services offer new ways to win people over while remaining productive and cost-efficient. By focusing on these as a means to build trust, the government can give people personalised interactions and reduce the frustration or anxiety with which they regard government services.