Online shopping hit a new high this holiday season, which has some unexpected implications for state and local governments. Governments are under pressure to create a more retail-like user experience that reduces friction and speeds transactions. At the same time, they need to meet regulatory requirements for access, privacy and security. Achieving that balance can vastly improve citizen engagement and allow governments to focus resources where they are truly needed.
Interestingly, local government portals are ahead of state-level systems in many cases, according to Bob Benstead, Public Sector VP Business Development at Infor, but that is rapidly changing. “At the local level, government is closer to citizens, providing information about services and facilities and supporting payments, licensing and permit applications,” he explained. “But, today, we rarely see an RFP at any level of state or local government without a customer service component.”
Generating an online retail type of experience can enhance citizen engagement. But e-retailers have spent years and made huge investments in developing systems that feel welcoming and guide users through searches and transactions. “Citizen portals tend to be dated in look and feel, and complicated to use,” Benstead said. “Agencies need to understand how people use apps, like social media and shopping platforms, in order to make portals that are easy to navigate and friendlier to use.”
The Foundation: Understanding Your Workflow
Many portals tend to be department or mission-specific. But point solutions aren’t necessarily the path to a system that addresses the broad range of users’ needs. Benstead said that meeting citizens’ expectations starts with identifying what they want from a portal as well as how they want to use it. “This takes input not just from the IT experts in an organization, but the operational, business-related people who can help identify a new, more effective workflow.”
He said that understanding the transactions people want to make through a portal is important, but it’s just as necessary to understand the relationships behind those processes. “Citizens don’t know the structure of government. They just want to find out facility information, pay a fee, get a license. The governing agency needs to know the cross-departmental connections and barriers. Think of this as an opportunity to streamline,” Benstead recommended. “The portal can be a centralized starting point that directs users to mission-specific tasks.”
Benstead suggested, though, that implementing this sort of comprehensive portal could be done in stages. “It starts with the vision, and of course, agencies have to work with their budget cycles. Rather than try to boil the ocean, find something that can be addressed and focus on achieving that.”
Security and Privacy are Not Optional
In a time where ransomware, identity theft and data compromises occur all too often, Benstead said that transparency into government operations has to be supported by a commitment to security and privacy. But, he cautioned, this takes more than just a technology solution.
“Agencies need to know what PII (personally identifiable information) and PHI (personal health information) is being collected and where it sits on the network,” Benstead said. “At the same time, they need to have policies and procedures in place to protect it, along with someone watching the gate.”
Training is equally important, he said, noting that users inside the agencies have to be educated on security practices and regulations, and require regular reminders and retraining as threats evolve.
It Starts with Strategy but Hinges on Buy-in
“Things are changing quickly, and a monster custom solution may not be valid in short order,” Benstead said. “Technologies change. So do threats and regulations.” Working with third-party solutions providers and COTS products could provide a more adaptable approach to developing a system that meets the needs of users and government.
Benstead also suggested that it’s critical to make sure everyone involved understands the vision, and that the project owners have the backing of leadership, such as a city manager, who can champion the solution.
Most of all, Benstead said, remember that a portal is not a one-time solution. “You need to measure to know if you’re on the mark,” he said. “Do you have KPIs? Are you getting citizen feedback and usage statistics?” By analyzing what is working well and where the system is yet to meet expectations, state and local agencies can better address the needs of citizens.