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The only difference between being a customer and a citizen is choice!

Written by Ben Holliday, Head of User Experience Design at DWP

I was part of a round table forum Tuesday 20th June for Digital Leaders week: North West Salon: Citizen Experience.

I was invited as one of the keynote speakers along with Stephen Morris, Director of Programmes at UKCloud.

The event was set up as an open discussion for everyone that attended and I spoke without notes.

It turned out to be a good wide ranging conversation with contributions from a number of people. It was especially great to have Emma Collingridge there from Stockport Council’s Digital by Design programme to get her perspective from local government.

We were given the following questions to prepare so here are my notes. These were all written before the session (I usually write down my thoughts in advance if I’m going to be part of a panel or any kind of discussion forum):

1. Is there a fundamental difference between a customer and citizen experience and should there be?

No. When thinking about public services, the only difference between being a customer and a citizen experience is choice.

In most circumstances people have no choice when using public or government services. These services are often a last resort due to a set of circumstances or the situation that’s happening in their lives.

The relationship a business has with its customers is different. In most cases (unless it’s a monopoly) businesses have to earn the attention of the people they sell to or provide a product or service that’s better than the alternative. People can then choose them over a competitor.

The best possible public service is something that understands and meets the underlying need someone has. I believe that public services should aim to deliver the best possible service. But this shouldn’t be driven by the idea of having customers or the need to deliver customer service.

In my experience, having a customer experience team doesn’t mean that companies really care about customers and the experience they have. I’ve also found that customer service teams rarely have the influence or connection to core product delivery teams to fix real problems people experience when using their products and services.

Customer experience is all too often a branding or marketing exercise rather than a focus on how well something really works for someone. It’s nice to give the impression that you care about customer experience, but this intention is often detached from the hard work required to improve the experience of the people you call customers.

In both private and public sector I think we’re seeing a shift away from how we traditionally market things, position or sell a brand to someone. In many ways the private sector could learn a lot from the public sector, arguably it already is with the success of things like GOV.UK.

2. What could the public sector learn from industries ahead of the curve in CX such as retail?

I don’t think the experience people expect from the public sector should be any different from other services that they use.

The public sector needs to be much better at recognising the increased expectations of services that people now have.

I think we’ll see an increase in demand for better, more effective, public services. This is because the internet has raised our expectations for how things could work.

I’ve started talking about this as things that are ‘of the internet’ or services that are fit for a digital-era.

These are things that should be usable, accessible to everyone, responsive and highly adaptable to individual need, open and transparent (built on trust and consent), faster (moving towards instantaneous outcomes), and increasingly automated (efficient and cost effective to both operate if you’re a business and increasingly affordable if you’re a customer).

Think about the services delivered by companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Paypal, or Apple, Amazon, Google, and Spotify. These companies have all raised the expectations we have for services that exist in a digital-era. They’re all ‘of the internet’.

This is no longer the difference between services we pay money for and services we don’t pay money for. Most of us contribute, and therefore pay for the public services we use during our working lives, and then continue to benefit from in retirement. The value exchange for services has also changed. We use many services in exchange for our consent, and our data.

The public sector needs to ask if we’re really making the most of the technology, culture and processes of a digital-era. It needs to look more carefully at the role of the internet in our lives.

Importantly, this has to go beyond making digital things that are an extension of an old and analog world. This was a world where many of our existing public services were first conceived or designed.

Adding new technology to analog organisations and services isn’t going to be adaptable, or bold enough for the increasing uncertainty and rate of change that society is facing.

3. How can we build momentum and internal CX capability in local business and the public sector?

Working on vital public services that we will all rely on at some point in our lives really does change the perspective of how good (and bad) design impacts everything around us.

I firmly believe that every designer should spend some time working in the public or voluntary sectors. We simply need more people to come and work in the public sector. We need them to help shape and design what the future could look like.

This means digital people as much as what we might call digital specialists. By digital people I mean that there’s still a lack of both digital skills, and more critically, digital understanding in the public and voluntary sectors. We first need to understand what it means to be digital before we can start to tackle the biggest issues we face in society such as social care and housing.

4. How can the voluntary sector build more holistic citizen experiences?

When we consider holistic experiences, I think the challenge is how we think about the design and the purpose of our organisations.

The voluntary sector is a very diverse group of organisations and groups. If you look at the charity sector as an example, the challenge is the same as in the work we do across the public sector, or in central government:

Most established organisations and the services they deliver were designed for a pre-internet era.

I don’t think we can focus on creating holistic experiences until we’re prepared to fundamentally question the design of these service institutions. Why they exist (their purpose) and where they’re going.

Every truly digital organisation should have a vision for the future that’s worth working towards. I think there are some key aspects to this if an organisation is going to succeed, or at least survive in the modern world. This means that the direction we set for our teams has to be emotive (human-centred). It has to be tangible (something everyone can get hold of) and, most of all, it has to be adaptable to change and uncertainty.

We live in uncertain times and the rate of change happening around us will continue to increase. The voluntary sector will have to be adaptable to survive. It will need to start by understanding what it means to exist and deliver services in a digital world where people’s expectations have changed.

It’s worth considering that we’re seeing increasing choice for people in many private service sectors but that there’s also decreasing choice for services in many of our key social sectors due to the constraints of finance and changing priorities of government.

Like the public sector, the voluntary sector needs to question everything. Starting with purpose, to how they raise funds, to what it is they deliver back to society and how this fits together with everything that’s changing around them.

Applying technology to an analog view of the world is simply not a sustainable future for anyone.


This post first appeared here and was reposted with permission.

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