These days, we constantly hear of governments testing artificial intelligence to improve digital services. There is much excitement around the possibilities of using emerging technologies to help governments deliver services faster, cheaper and more effectively.
At the same time, governments are realising the importance of engaging with the people they serve, to understand what citizens need from public services. They are also working more closely with the private sector and young people.
I have identified three approaches that, when put together, help build a future-ready government.
1. Enable businesses and the private sector to work with you.
The Government of Thailand, which has the vision to build a thriving digital economy, has in recent years made it easier for start-ups and companies to pitch and sell to government agencies. This effectively achieves two goals: building better government services faster, while also stimulating innovation and growth in the private sector.
“Government procurement transformation” provides subsidies to start-ups so they can develop demos and prototypes for specific problem statements, said Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana, executive director of Thailand’s National Innovation Agency. The agency provides funding of about US$32,000 for start-ups to run pilots. If the solution proves successful after a few months, the start-up wins a contract with the agency in question.
“This engagement is to develop trust among start-ups and government, which is very important in my opinion,” Chairatana remarked at a government innovation summit held in Bangkok in October 2019. Each government agency develops proposals for solutions and the amount of budget that they need, he added.
These pilots show right away that the technology works and that the start-up can deliver what it says it will deliver. The central government hopes to build a “US$1 billion market out of this special procurement for the next 5 years”, Chairatana said in 2018.
2. Focus on citizens’ needs
Just as private companies such as retailers are prioritising customer experience, governments around the world are hoping to do the same for their citizens. They are putting citizens at the centre of everything they do and employing techniques such as design thinking to shape their services to suit citizens’ lives.
“It’s very easy to be distracted in government by your own needs, either from legislation or from the political level. By keeping a relentless focus on the user needs, that’s what you can do,” Chris Ferguson, director for National, International and Research at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS), said in Bangkok in October. He was speaking about his vision for citizen-centric services on a keynote panel.
One major focus for the UK government is to design services that orbit around significant life events — having a child, returning to work, retirement, death or birth. It is precisely at these times that citizens seek out services from various government agencies at different levels. “It makes sense if you’re taking a user perspective, to try and knit these things together,” Ferguson explained.
How is GDS approaching this? One way is by its government-as-a-platform philosophy, which takes away some of the legwork from service delivery. GDS provides central components that are common across services, such as payments, notifications or identity verification. One example is Gov.UK Notify, which is a platform for sending messages, emails or physical letters, and 1,300 different UK public services are currently using it, according to Ferguson.
Agencies do not have to build these components from scratch each time and can instead focus on the elements that are specific to their policy areas, Ferguson noted. “You don’t have to build a kitchen every time you want a meal — and so it is with designing government services. Government departments simply assemble services from those components as far as possible.”
3. Engage with young people
In Indonesia, the governor of West Java wants to “inspire young people to say, ‘let’s do things inside the government’.” Youth engagement is a priority for Ridwan Kamil as part of his “Digital West Java” vision.
Youth engagement will be increasingly crucial for one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies; the median age of Indonesians is around 30 years, and more than 40 per cent of the population is between the ages of 25 and 54. There is also massive mobile phone penetration — so much so that mobile phones outnumber Indonesia’s 264 million citizens.
The governor has set up the Jabar Digital Service, inspired by the UK Government Digital Service, and staffed by a team of under-35s. He is providing the tools for these young people to build apps and digital services to tackle the everyday problems citizens face.
One of the first problems that his young team tackled was fake news. “West Java is the only province in Indonesia to have fake news-fighting units,” said the governor. “Every Monday we post five fake news [stories] that are circulating in my province to make sure my people will not fall victim to fake news.”
Another project places young leaders in villages, where they are tasked with building a start-up within 2 years under the One Village One Company programme. There is also the Jabar Quick Response unit, which provides aid or assistance of various forms to needy people within 24 hours. “Somebody with a humanity crisis — their homes destroyed or [they] cannot afford to pay the fee for the hospital — the team on the ground responds by digital, then physically gives the solution,” Ridwan continued.
Governments are acknowledging that the pursuit of serving citizens is a two-way street and that the private sector has a role to play in realising that vision. What’s more, young people are the future, literally, so they should also be instrumental in shaping it.
These three approaches can help any government transform its ways of working, to prepare itself and its citizens for the years that lie ahead.