Citizen Digital Series: How Should Governments Approach Digital Transformation?
Governments around the world aim to deliver great services to their citizens. But the public sector’s road to improving citizen and customer experience comes with all sorts of hurdles—from disconnects between IT professionals and customer experience to a lack of permission to test digital services with users. How can governments overcome these hurdles? Eric spoke with Emma Gawen—a partner at Public Digital, who leads the consultancy’s public sector work in the Americas—to gauge her insights on the dos and don’ts of governments’ digital transformation journeys.
Eric Egan: Hi everyone. Welcome to Citizen Digital, an ITIF web series where I speak with experts in the United States and around the world to explore how digital technology can improve citizen and customer experience. My name is Eric Egan. I'm the policy fellow for digital government at ITIF. And with me today is Emma Gawen, partner at Public Digital where she leads consultancy's public sector work in the Americas. Emma, thanks for joining today.
Emma Gawen: Hi. Thanks. Great to be with you.
Eric Egan: So I thought before we jump into the conversation and some questions, maybe just taking a moment for you to share a little bit about yourself and how you became to... Got to work in this space.
Emma Gawen: Sure. So it's worth saying Public Digital itself, we're a specialist digital transformation consultancy and we work with governments all around the world. I've been there since 2018 and as you said in the introduction, I focus on the Americas, but when my journey started was in government. I originally joined the UK public sector's Ministry of Justice in their IT department and had a fantastic experience there. But whilst I was there, the government digital service, which we'll probably talk about later, came to be and came to offer this new different vision of how we could deliver great services to citizens. So I went to work there and since then have had amazing opportunities to work internationally in the UK, in New Zealand and with lots of different countries helping them on their digital transformation journey.
Eric Egan: Very cool. And one of the standard questions we ask here to leveraging and thinking about your background, the show, it's about kind of citizen experience or customer experience in terms of government services, particularly with digital services. So from your point of view, what do you consider citizen experience or customer experience and in what role do you think digital technology plays in that experience? Maybe even how has it played in recent years but even moving forward as well?
Emma Gawen: So I think in a government context it's really simple, which is it's about connecting citizens with information, with money and with the services they're entitled to. Simple as that. That's what the customer experience is all about. And particularly in a democracy, we pay tax and we do so with the bond that actually government will invest in these services that we can get access to. And unfortunately due to the way government works, that can become quite hard. There's lots of forms, there's lots of bureaucracy in the way and it makes it harder to get access to those things. So I think customer experience is about breaking out of that. And specifically in the digital context, I think it's actually that the difference is very stark because in your consumer life you are accessing these services on the internet, it's easy, you've got whole product teams making it easy for you to use something to get through a journey and you're seeing this widening gap between what government can offer and what you're getting in your consumer life.
So citizen experience in the digital context is bridging that gap. How can we as governments offer just as brilliant a service to citizens as those consumer products do? Two kind of self-reflections on that. The first is that it's obviously harder because in government the incentives are different. If you work in a consumer company... I worked for some accountancy software company for a little while, and the incentives there are all around users, they're all about helping to make it easy. That's what you're measured on. That's what the company's measuring and highlighting. That environment is all around you. In government it's not the environment, the incentives are slightly different. So trying to break through that and prioritize it, I do think it's naturally just a little bit harder.
But going back to why we pay taxes and have democracies, we still need to do it and we still need to break through that barrier. The other kind of self-reflection I have is that there are governments around the world that are taking it that one step further and saying how can we offer proactive services? So Singapore and Estonia in particular, they do services around life events particularly birth that seems to be a common touchpoint where you can do something really good. When someone's born it says, okay, brilliant, here's the money that you're entitled to and it's digital that's underpinning that. But the North Star is making a fabulous service and getting people the things that they're entitled to.
Eric Egan: Yeah, it's a great point in this concept of proactive government. So often the things that people need when they reach out to their governments are very critical. And so if it's an emergency response or if it's during the pandemic, if it's money because they're dealing with rent issues and kind of shortfalls because they lost their job and that kind of thing. So you're totally right. We've spoken to people in the past in Singapore and Estonia who... It's just a different kind of mentality in terms of what customer experiences is in and it's in a lot of ways it's a particularly kind of public sector challenge where you're not just, how do we get more people to do the service? Also thinking about what is the service and when do people really need that and how do we meet people where there are?
Emma Gawen: Yeah, and how do you actually make sure you are meeting the right people? If you're in a product, you don't care who's paying you, whereas in government you could... Inclusivity always comes up every time you talk about this, but it is true for government. You really have to think, don't make it easy for one set of people and then exclude another. So there's a second level of complexity, but I do really like those mentalities that say, how can we proactively make it easier? That feels like such a fantastic mindset to start it with.
Eric Egan: Yeah. And so vital for so many vulnerable moments in people's lives. So you mentioned the government digital service already, which is good. Obviously I knew we were talking about it as you said, and as you may know, and you've worked in the States as well years ago, the federal IT in the US really began to emulate that kind of structure of the UK's government digital service and even replicated a version of that in the States, the US digital service. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about, it doesn't have to be too much in the weeds given how exposed you were to that moment of that beginning of that service and also the transformation associated with gov.uk because it's again, is someone who works in digital government in the US, I frequently point to it as why can't usa.gov kind of look like gov.uk or why can't we replicate those? So any kind of insider baseball so to speak, in terms of why that was such a pivotal moment and maybe any reflections and perspectives on that?
Emma Gawen: So I get asked about gov.uk all the time and I never worked on it, but I worked adjacent to it, but I didn't work on that particular product and yet it's followed me through all that time and it is because it is such a fantastic experience. And I was talking to someone earlier today about this. I haven't yet found something that is as good, but I'd also describe it as an iceberg in the sense of what you see, gov.uk, that one website that's usable, got all the consistent form design. What it is behind that is a different organization structure, procurement reform, different skills tied into government, leaders trained in a different way, different models of funding. So there's just this huge change that sat behind that. And to take it back a step, and I mentioned I started in the UK's in the IT profession, a small anecdote, which is that I started upgrading this service as a project manager in an IT department and I said to the vendor project manager, hey, I'd like to actually see this service because I'm running the upgrade to it.
And she looked a bit puzzled and went, okay, yeah, I'll see if I can help you do that. And went away and I was imagining that she was going to come back with a login or something and I could go and play with it. And she came back a week later with a brown envelope and she gave it to me and she said, here are all the screenshots of this service. And it was a full packet, this thick, and somebody in analyst in our team had gone away and taken screenshots of every screen in that service. And I don't think that's atypical and that's just an example of how disconnected, the IT profession, like brilliant, lovely people, but really disconnected from the customer experience and the reality of what using that service is going to be like.
And I think if you were to go and talk to a product team that were in the UK government now, there wouldn't be that disconnect because you've had that rewiring, you've brought in product managers, you've brought in user researchers, you've brought in service designers, and then you've empowered them. So you've had a whole transformation in approach. That means hopefully if you're someone like me sitting in the UK government now, you know what your service is, you know what the pain points are for users and you are empowered to do something about it.
Eric Egan: Yeah, that's interesting. Your anecdote reminded me of a similar anecdote of mine when I was working with a government client and we had an Excel file that we were working on and I can't remember what it was for, but we walked over to the client, and he works for the state and he had... The way that he edited this was he printed out the Excel spreadsheet and went kind of line by line with a pencil and I was like, wow, that's one very dedicated. And he was very focused. I mean it's also so interesting, that approach just to print out the Excel spreadsheet instead of just working on it.
Emma Gawen: And to go back to your original question about that transformation, I think some of it was having some people in leadership positions who said, that's not okay. Do you know? There was that real moment in time. There were inspirational and strategic changes, but there was also a selection of leaders who came in and said, building websites that way is not great. Doing online services that way is broken. Your vendors are not giving you good value. And it created a real moment for us.
Eric Egan: Yeah, and another thing that you said I think resonates with me, and I think it certainly will with other people who work in federal IT here in the States, I think a lot of it has been, oh, I guess we need to make these websites better just because people say that they're bad or something and it's not taking seriously the kind of behind the scenes organizational change, mindset changes. They just want to do things as they do things. And if you create a website that aligns with that kind of legacy organizational mentality where accounting's over here and finance is over here and you try reflect that into a website that for the people who use that website don't care about that. It could be one of the reasons we see a real hodgepodge of quality in American federal websites.
Emma Gawen: Yes, Conway's law is the thing that comes to mind with that, which is the law that a service will always reflect the organization that delivers it. So in government, that is a federalized complex mess often and you have to really work hard to cut against that.
Eric Egan: Yeah, that's very true. I think that applies certainly to the States. So speaking of which too, so you've worked in a lot of different countries as well, levels of government. I know you've worked in the state of California, maybe even at the local level in other countries. Are there any other... You've kind of hinted at a few challenges, any other challenges? I think maybe specific to the public sector organization, some of those things we've also been hitting on a little bit that you've kind of noticed as you help these organizations through their digital transformation journey. Anything kind of worth sharing? I mean, it could be funny or interesting, but given that you have kind of an international perspective on these different journeys, anything you feel sharing it might be valuable for this audience?
Emma Gawen: So I think I'll give three. The first and this is kind of general but we see it everywhere, is the separation between policy and technology teams is super ingrained in many public sector organizations. And that's definitely one of the things that you have to break down and it's just a general point. That you end up with this situation where it's a tech over there, the policy over there, one chuck's policy to the other. And that's a problem in the sense of if you're trying to create responsive and great digital experience that can actually adapt as you change policy, then you've already created a structure that doesn't encourage that. That's a really common challenge.
The second is that leaders often fix the wrong problems or they're fixated on the wrong things. This is a trivial example of that. But I see it a lot where with websites, leaders are really, really interested in the logo that sits at the top of the page. They're really interested in signing off the font and signing off where it sits and checking that the name of their organization is in the right place and that's sort of an indicator because of course a user coming to that page really doesn't care. It's the last thing that they care about. And yet you have the kind of leadership, it's a bit of organizational ego, often it's not necessarily about individuals, but they just focus on completely the wrong thing. And that is fairly universal. I've seen it in the States, I've seen it elsewhere in the world. It's a pretty consistent thing.
So I think the day that you have the leader coming and actually looking at the service or looking at the webpage and saying, hey, can users just complete this form and how quickly and where do they get stuck? That is the shift that we need to see. Are you talking about the logo or are you talking about the outcome that the user can get to? And a third. Oh, sorry.
Eric Egan: No worries.
Emma Gawen: My computer went to sleep briefly. The third example, and again that we see everywhere, and I'm highlighting it because I think it's really important to fix, is that there's often a lack of permission to test with users. So I talked a bit about that example where you're given a wad of files. It's also endemic that governments think they know what they users want and they don't actually ask. And you see this in the language, so you might see we are really citizen focused, as an example. Well, citizen focused, you can get away with not talking to them at all if you're citizen focused.
And you also might see, for example, leaning on surveys. So we'll ask you, do you think this service is good and you are relying on people's responses? A really transformational difference is if you can take your services out there, you can watch people actually use them, real testing and then see what they do. The governments that have managed to regularly make that change, that makes all the difference because it takes it from anecdote, oh, people are finding this hard to something that people can see and feel, and look at and really understand.
Eric Egan: Yeah, that's great. A few things there. One, I just do have to agree with the logo thing. Likewise, I worked with many different agencies and they are almost funnily defensive of their logos, want it everywhere, every page, you want to be able to click on it, do all these things. It's funny to hear that's the case across the board. I'm wondering if you could share regarding the kind of actual user testing, because this is again something else that I'd seen as well, you end up using... You have user acceptance testing, but really they're proxy testers for people who are putting themselves in a, who they think is a citizen kind of experience and then using the service accordingly and testing it for them. But as you mentioned, those aren't real users. Those aren't real citizens, they are essentially proxies. But often there are barriers, political or otherwise.
Maybe they're worried about backlash, they're worried about this. If maybe it's yet as untested kind of piece of software product that might be out there. How do agencies who want to do that and take that seriously? How do they overcome those barriers? How do they make the case, hey, this isn't... Sure, it might be that this product isn't... Ends up not working really well and we have to deal with that and maybe people find out about that, but how can they get over those barriers and be like, but it's the right way to do this? We have to do this, not just let's protect ourselves and be citizen focused but not actually engage the citizen.
Emma Gawen: Yeah, that's tough. I mean, I think someone has to have the bravery to say what you're doing isn't working. Because what we do at the moment is we'll spend three to four years developing something, write a raft of requirements, totaling 200 pages, spend two years developing it, do some user acceptance testing, put it live, and then be surprised when people are disappointed. So that doesn't work and it happens all the time. So I think there is something about perhaps you could test it with safe services. If you've got something out there that an agency is pretty confident it's working well, perhaps test it on that actually say, well, let's see people using it, get some confidence. It's a bit less threatening and you might still find things and you might still find things that you didn't know. But it's much better to know that something isn't working before you put it live than it is to wait until afterwards.
So it's the bravery to take the first step. I think the other thing that we always suggest people do is go and talk to the call centers or talk to the frontline agents because quite often there's just this raft of failure waste where people are coming onto your service, your information, your forms, whichever it is. They're finding it hard, they're giving it up and they're talking to a person. And that's actually costing a huge amount of time in terms of efficiency that could be spent really helping the people that actually need it. So perhaps leveraging some of those stories and saying, well, okay, over here, we know a lot of time is being spent on this. Perhaps we can test that particular aspect of a service out... See how people are using it, and then build from there. Might be another way to isolate it as a kind of fix to a particular issue rather than opening up your whole self to the outside world.
Eric Egan: Yeah, that's fair. I think that's good advice for sure. So I do want to get to one question. I think the reason I actually reached out to you for the very first time was I read one of your blogs on how to fix government websites. And we've been talking about this a little bit already, but I'm wondering if you can defend the claim of how important... Because I guess websites are often now very taken for granted for any organization, but I think there's something to be said about how... Even maybe compared to a mobile app or a native mobile app, which a lot of consumer companies maybe would've have gone a different route. And they're also thinking about other things, other digital technologies, but why are government websites still so important from a kind of bread and butter perspective? And then any, again, you've worked in a variety of these across different levels in different countries. Any tips or tricks of how you could within even a month take, I can look at this website and maybe improve it with a few simple things?
Emma Gawen: So I mean it's worth saying that there's plenty of room for improvement because there are a lot of government websites out there that are really bad. It's pretty universal. I looked at a couple of them today. So plenty of room for us to do things, but for me it is personal. I learned to code HTML and CSF when I was 15 and just for fun. And I played with websites when the internet was coming to be. And that's how I found myself in this career. So that's why I personally find it really interesting. But what I see in my professional life is that websites sit in this middle ground because they're not IT, they're not these big BRP systems that are getting spent billions of pounds on. They're not even quite forms and they're not quite traditional comms. Comms departments tend to be about defensive comms, making the senior leaders look good. It's not the function.
So websites like this glue, they're sit in the middle, but often the teams that run them, they're given a mandate to look after navigation, logos, buttons, content hierarchy, all the bits around the middle, and then the bit in the middle, which is actually the thing that the user needs is neglected. It's the thing that dies on the vine and just sits there for a couple of years and no one really curates it. It's really typical. And the web teams often overworked, undervalued, under-resourced, dealing with tickets. So it's kind of sad. But it's central because where do you go if you want to get something that you need from government? Probably to Google. That will take you directly to a government website. That tends to be the journey that most people take unless you are getting recommended by TikTok or something. But it's really central to the journey and we completely neglect it.
Thinking about easy tips and these are really no-brainer things. So they are simple. And if you are in a commercial company, you'd go, well, that's blinding obvious. You use data. So many places we come across, they have analytics and they don't look at them. So you should understand what your top content is. You should understand where people are bouncing off and leaving again, you should understand what people are searching for. Understand those things, that's number one. And often people have the tools, they're just not using them.
Following that, prioritize the top content. If everyone is coming to your website to renew a driving license, make the content around that better first because that's going to have the most impact quickest. You're not going to change the whole thing. And as I've talked more about this, I've become more explicit, but do search engine optimization because you're actually trying to get people to do the service. And it feels like an odd thing to say to a government organization like, oh, they'll just come to me, but they won't. We see that people don't, they get lured off to predatory companies that take your money for well searched things. So actually think of it in terms of search engine optimization. How do you actually bring people to your site? Because once you've done that, hopefully your brilliant government service that follows will do the rest of the work.
Eric Egan: Yeah, that's great. Very helpful, I think. And if you go onto any random government website, it's not always the case that they're following those tips. So it may seem, as you said, kind of no-brainers, but I think one in which maybe more governments should embrace.
Emma Gawen: If I could add one final no-brainer, that is not followed. Optimize for performance. Don't put eight megabyte pictures on your website because it looks shiny, because that also cuts out half of your users, particularly with people on mobile data plans and things. And that is another endemic crime where essentially they've gone with a big banner of picture and actually that's not really helping anyone even though it looks nice.
Eric Egan: That's a great point. And something clearly reflected in gov.uk where it's very much designed to be like, how do we get these people the information they need? We're talking about government services, this is something they don't have to be razzled dazzled in terms of the design of the website. They're just like, I need to register to vote, or I need a driver's license, or I need desperately money. That's about getting them the right information quickly. And not about a shiny design page or picture or something there.
Emma Gawen: It is. Although I will say the alpha, the very first version of gov.uk, it was the year of the Olympics and it did have a picture of the Olympic stadium. So the original version that was signed off by ministers had a shine to it. And then as soon as they got permission, we took it off because it's just not actually needed.
Eric Egan: That's funny. Well, we are running against time here, but maybe one final thought from you in terms of maybe what excites you about digital experiences with government moving forward. This could be in the UK, it could be kind of broadly, it could be something new and shiny, it could be doubling down on maybe making websites better. I'll leave it to you. Anything that you're kind of thinking about moving forward when it comes to this space?
Emma Gawen: No, the main thing I'm wondering about is how the influence of generative AI and ChatGPT is going to change or not change what people do about websites. And this is... So I'm very much avoiding getting on hype wagons in general. From Public Digital's point of view, we always start with people and organizations, not like exciting tech. This does seem different. However, I'm worried that people are going to think this is going to solve all their problems for them, put an AI in place and we don't have to do the hard work. And the thread through great websites, through gov.uk, through great government services. The hard bit is always in the people. They're making people agree to say the same thing and making the design great. So I am both really excited by the potential of that, but also fearful of it. It's our ability to let us off the hook and hope that those problems will be solved for us.
Eric Egan: So kind of a mix of an optimism and cautious.
Emma Gawen: Yeah, I like the idea that it changes the way we search for things and we get information. Because I feel like some of the ways we use the internet now is a bit broken. It's a one big advert for many big companies. It’s genuinely exciting, but still a way to go.
Eric Egan: Okay, well we'll end it at there. Emma, thanks again for joining us. This was great conversation.
Emma Gawen: Thanks so much. And thanks so much for having me.
Eric Egan: And for those watching, don't forget to subscribe to ITIF on YouTube for other great content and tech and innovation policy. And stay tuned for more episodes of Citizen Digital. Bye now.
About This Series
People increasingly prefer interacting with government agencies digitally, whether it’s to access public services or file their taxes. Beyond offering the convenience and efficiency customers have come to expect in day-to-day life, digital technologies also present new possibilities for civic engagement. ITIF’s Citizen Digital video series explores the opportunities and challenges involved in digitizing government services through conversations with leading experts in the field. Guests share lessons learned and best practices for implementing digital solutions to transform citizens’ customer experience with their governments.
Watch more episodes in the series at itif.org and YouTube.com/@itif.