Why designing will be a critical differentiator in building ingenious e-Government services?

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We are moving into an economy where there is increasingly high demand on government services. There are constant pressures on public expenditure and an increasing demand to make use of them efficiently. There is also tremendous amount of competition and pressure on finances and resources along with challenges of increasing the tax base. Thus, with an energy and resource dependent economy, it is getting difficult to ensure sustainable services. These are not efficiency challenges, but design challenges. Effective service design requires careful attention to cost, service levels, efficiency, sales, profits and human aspects.


Governments are beginning to realize the importance of design in public sector services. In Finland, design is an essential part of National Innovation Strategy. Helsinki Design Lab is established for applying design to policy making challenges. The UK design industry is the largest in Europe. Design is given a central role in UK government strategy by Department for Business, Innovations and Skills. Design is also recognized in UK National Planning Policy Framework. To promote design-driven innovation in the public sector, the Danish Government supports MindLab, a cross ministerial innovation unit that involves citizens and businesses in creating new solution for society. Denmark is one of the first country to launch National Design Policy. Countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Australia and Singapore are all adopting design-led innovation to solve societal challenges.

“I think in the past there’s been an assumption that if it’s in the public sector it doesn’t have to be as good as in the private sector. That is ridiculous. As designers, we’re working to make people’s lives better; we’re working to save billions of pounds. The ambition should be sky high.” – Ben Terrett, Head of Design, UK Government Digital Service

User Centric Service Design

Public Sector services are huge by scope and user base. “User” by the way is a term often commonly attributed to entire service consumer base. There is obviously a service producer and a service consumer. In case of public service, consumer can be further segregated into citizens, public servants, representative of organization – company, NGOs etc. Citizens in turn may take different role. 


The backbone of user-centric service design is basically observing actual users, inviting divergent ideas, research and modelling, quick prototyping and iteration, and arriving at final design. All the while user feedback and key metrics remain the guiding barometer in taking design decisions.


The research and modelling step of service design can take shape of “Action Design Research” and “Agent Oriented Modelling” as illustrated under:


Agent Oriented Modelling

The complexity of public program and increasing demands to meet stakeholders’ needs and satisfaction require next stage of service design to enable proactive e-governance. The proactive e-governance supports intelligent automation on basis of existing information and yet maintaining people-first policy. Agent Oriented Modelling (AOM) enables capturing:

  • Functional goals for service arranged in a hierarchy
  • Non-functional requirements as quality goals
  • Capturing consumer emotions (delighted to outraged)
Action Design Research
On a broad level, research constitutes of following stages

Stage – 1: Problem is identified and described in collaboration with researchers and stakeholders. The purpose is to identify goals of “ideal” service.

Stage – 2: Prototype artefact is iteratively built and evaluated by stakeholders

Stage – 3: The artefact is rebuilt to apply to broader class of problems

Stage – 4: Outcome is further generalized

Case Studies of Service improvement by Design 

Family benefits system in Estonia

Family benefits in Estonia are provided by Social Insurance Board and are available to permanent residents and foreigners on temporary residence permit. The list of services include child allowance, foster care allowance, allowance for big families with seven or more children, grants by local municipality, allowance for start in independent life etc. To avail these services a set of documents is required in (online or offline) process. Document that are required include Certificate of employment, Certificate of Defense forces, Certificate from School, Judgement to establish guardianship or foster care etc.

In designing services for family benefits system, stakeholders covering officials of board, developers, support functions, procedural activities, e-service hosting for State and different registries were identified for interview. The interview revealed that efficiency of the online service can be improved by moving from an e-Service (which enables submitting application in electronic forms) to an automated e-service (allowing to gather information from different registries and databases). Thus there is a clear need of shifting from pull approach (where citizens seek services from government) to push approach (where government proactively delivers timely, customized and relevant services to citizens). Also the offline service can benefit by moving from a service-specific application to a unified application, where user would be able to apply for a number of services at once. The interviews further pointed out that a stronger focus on promoting services and clarifying in different languages would be beneficial.

Government Digital Service of UK

UK online government services designed such as Directgov, Business Link and many other department websites set up in 2004 or earlier were sprawling and had become irrelevant and inefficient. With more access to internet, citizens demand for creative and efficient redressal of their issues with government services could not be met. UK government’s Cabinet Office set up a team for Government Digital Service (GDS) with a core purpose of ensuring that government offers digital products and services at least equal to digital experience delivered by the giants of web. However, soon the designers discovered that citizens are not just looking for website design or the best practices in commercial work. They found users engaging with government services want “simplicity and speed”.

The 10 design principles of GDS

1. Start with needs

2. Do less

3. Design with Data

4. Do the hard work to make it simple

5. Iterate. Then iterate again

6. Build for inclusion

7. Understand context

8. Build digital services. not websites

9. Be consistent, not uniform

10.  Make things open: it makes things better

From the choice of fonts for gov.uk website to measuring the bounce rate on FAQ pages, GDS tried to keep simplicity in all design aspects. Only one domain was kept as the first step in making it simpler, clearer and faster to access government information and services. Rationalization of information architecture led to removal of duplicates or inconsistencies in information. Over 350 government department websites replaced with “Inside Government“, which contains policy, announcements and publications, grouped by topics and organizations.


Further Readings

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