Improving Canada’s Digital Public Services: Simplicity, Humanity and Security
The pandemic changed how many Canadians, and their global peers, use digital technology in their daily lives, by pushing fast forward on new innovations that are creating almost seamless experiences for everyday activities. These experiences happen almost without a thought. Packages show up at the door, entertainment options are targeted toward our interests and a latte is ready at the counter at the push of a button.
The private sector is driving most of the innovation, while governments around the world do their best to keep pace. Canada’s public service agencies made great strides during the pandemic to use digital technologies to improve the delivery of public services, but we still lag behind global leaders. The United Nations’ 2022 E-Government Survey found that Canada slipped from 28th place in 2020 to 32nd in 2022.
“Government must better understand what citizens expect from the digital delivery of public services.”
As Canadians’ expectations shift in how they see and use technology for day-to-day activities in an increasingly digital world, government must better understand what citizens expect from the digital delivery of public services. To this end, Catherine Luelo, Canada’s Chief Information Officer, is driving Canada’s Digital Ambition, developed with service to Canadians in mind. This new initiative serves to provide a “clear, long-term strategic vision for the Government of Canada to advance digital service delivery, cyber security, talent recruitment and privacy” and is closely aligned with the aspirations of the technology community to contribute to an efficient, human-focused and secure digital services environment for public service delivery.
Government agencies are naturally focused on compliance and outcomes, while business is about attracting and retaining customers and can, at times, more freely innovate without public scrutiny. Governments also face the additional challenge of delivering equitable services to diverse populations, often at times when people are in great need. When it comes to digital services, what works for the private sector is not necessarily right for the public sector.
Earlier this year, Accenture surveyed 5,500 consumers and 3,000 public service workers in ten countries, to determine the unique experience requirements needed to deliver public services in the digital age.
“Simplicity, humanity and security are the most important factors for digital services from the standpoint of those being served.”
One might expect that all Canadians would want the same level of immediate, constant and digital access to government services as they do to other services, such as online shopping or banking. There is a clear drive to adopt digital public services and Canadian public sector workers will often embrace digital innovation when it is offered to them. However, our research finds that in some situations, simplicity, humanity and security are the most important factors for digital services from the standpoint of those being served.
What is clear is that many government organizations should focus more on basic citizen priorities and desires for customer services, and follow these guidelines going forward to provide services in new, accessible ways.
Fourty-nine percent of Canadians report they find it frustrating to access public services, versus 53% globally. Lengthy and confusing processes are high on the list of complaints. Slow or clunky adoption of new processes is often blamed as well, creating barriers to effective delivery.
“Making it easy for people to access and get the help and outcomes they need is key to improving service delivery, which adoption of new digital technologies can easily overcome.”
Canadians are also infrequent users of government services, with 88% reporting they use government services between zero to two times a year. A lack of familiarity – marred by processes that seem overly complicated or counter-intuitive – adds frustrations for users, increases costs for organizations and weakens confidence in government.
Making it easy for people to access and get the help and outcomes they need is key to improving service delivery, which adoption of new digital technologies can easily overcome.
The majority of Canadians (87%) report that they are “very” or “quite” comfortable using digital public services, yet 36% still say that “in-person” services are their preference. Nearly one in three people surveyed around the world feel they are treated more like a number than a human when they interact with government agencies.
The power of human interaction remains at the heart of Canadians’ expectations. Public service agencies that want to improve experiences should ground everything they do in appreciating people’s humanity – whether experiences are face-to-face or digital – in order to serve consumers better.
Agencies that solicit feedback and co-create solutions with people also gain more insights into how best to deploy digital solutions. While digital solutions can be versatile in how they anticipate and respond to issues people face, they still need an “escape hatch” – the option to bring a human into the experience, if digital tools fall short.
While Canadians are generally more favourable than their global peers of how their government handles their personal data, skepticism still remains high. Only 56% of Canadians hold confidence in how governments use their personal data (versus a 49% global average).
On November 15th, Canada’s Auditor General, Karen Hogan, raised concerns in her annual report about how the Canadian government implements cybersecurity controls, highlighting inconsistent practices that may place sensitive information and digital infrastructure at risk of cyberattacks.
“Only 28% of Canadian public servants report that they have or are receiving cybersecurity training.”
Meanwhile, Canadian public servants – who generally hold positive views about how technology can improve their work and mission – are more hesitant to adopt new technologies than their global peers. Only 28% of Canadian public servants report that they have or are receiving cybersecurity training.
Ensuring that the public sector employees responsible for implementing and delivering digital services not only have the skills they need but also confidence in the systems they use is vital to ensuring outcomes can be met.
Improving Outcomes for Canadians:
Citizens cannot just switch government service providers like they do companies. In the absence of competition to drive excellence, public services are rooted in strong ambitions guided by citizen desires and needs. The best way forward to better serve and benefit citizens is for Canadian public service organizations to consistently showcase the principles of simplicity, humanity and security in their delivery of digital services.
More information on the research that inspired this article is available here.