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To make citizen services more user friendly and efficient, agencies must change how they approach IT.
It’s a truth as inherently American as NASCAR and as inscrutable as pop music: When it comes to providing citizen services, the government can be technologically challenged.
In a recent interview with Wired magazine, even President Barack Obama acknowledged the government’s shortcomings, saying, “There’s a whole bunch of work we have to do to get government to be more customer friendly.”Filing taxes, he said, should be “at least as easy as ordering a pizza or an airline ticket.”
He’s right there is a ton of work to do, much of it difficult at best. The challenges facing government and the complexities of the services agencies provide mean we might be a long way from allowing citizens to pay taxes online -- particularly in an age when cyber attackers increasingly target public-sector data.
Even so, there are ways to make citizen services more user friendly and efficient. First, though, we need to change how government agencies approach IT.
For most agencies, IT is often last in line when money is handed out, typically relegated to a budget’s final pages. IT systems are designed, deployed and set up to do what they “need” to do. Consequently, they provide limited functionality for agencies, rarely expanding beyond their original purpose.
To provide efficient, useful online citizen services, government must abandon this mindset. With today’s technology applications and capabilities, agencies should embrace IT as a problem solver. That means funding flexible technology that allows users to derive maximum benefits without buying even more technology to support it.
Bureaucracy, of course, is often the biggest hurdle, so choose key projects that will excite decision makers through benefits and outcomes. Once they see the potential for themselves, those decision makers can go back and seek more resources.
IT people obviously understand computers and networks, but they’re hardly experts in customer service, marketing or operations. To develop more user-friendly online services, agencies should look outside IT to form working groups, or to use an old IT term, “tiger teams,” of different skills.
Drawing on skills from outside the usual circle is a great way to increase innovative thinking. To get the most out of these teams, incentivize them to complete and implement an initiative that improves efficiency.
Take the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Board. Led by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, the board’s 15 innovators from the private sector and academia help DOD enhance the its culture, organization and processes. Most recently it recommended creating the role of chief innovation officer role to spearhead innovation activities at the agency.
There’s a canyon of understanding between those in their 20s and the older generations who typically hold decision-making positions in government. Millennials understand technology -- how it works, why it’s important, how it’s useful and how to excite people about it. We should lean on their knowledge of these digital natives to develop ideas and build apps that simplify agency processes.
That means working harder to attract and recruit young workers, rather than continuing to sacrifice all their talent and skills to the private sector. Instead of exposing them to constant bureaucracy, we must invigorate them by inviting their insights when developing a new app or IT service.
Government’s customers – United States citizens -- expect a certain level of service from those with whom they interact. Agencies must work hard to ensure that citizen services become (and remain) useful and user friendly, or they risk losing touch with citizens in the future.
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